I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
~ Wendell Berry
No, not that Christmas cactus. While most people think of various species of Schlumbergera as the traditional Christmas cactus, the plant variously known as Tasajillo, Christmas Cactus, Pencil Cactus, and Christmas Cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) spreads its color across the Texas landscape well into the winter months.
Growing at altitudes between 500 and 5000 feet, west of the Brazos River in South and West Texas grasslands, chaparral, and oak-juniper communities, the plant often escapes notice until other desert shrubs lose their foliage and its bright red fruits become apparent.
Leptocaulis means slender-stemmed, and those stems often twist together to form inpenetrable thickets. The thickets provide nesting sites for cactus wrens, while white-tail deer, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and other birds and small mammals feed on the fruits.
Tasajillo has seemed especially abundant this year: a boon to the creatures depending on it for food and shelter, and a colorful addition to our season of celebration.
By early July, the peak flowering of assorted Texas cacti has come to an end. The plants — claret cup, lace, hedgehog — fade back into the landscape, and even the more obvious pencil cactus can be hard to spot without its bright red fruit.
Even the best-known of our cacti, the prickly pear, rarely shows deep summer blooms. Still, occasional plants were producing their delightful flowers across the Texas hill country the first weekend in July.
There are more species of prickly pear than I’d ever imagined, and distinctions among them sometimes depend on such small details as the number and arrangement of spines and glochids: a part of the cactus that, once encountered, never is forgotten. Flower color isn’t the best guide for prickly pear, since color variation occurs in all species.
I’m relatively certain that the identification of the first cactus, O. cacanapa, is correct. It’s worth noting that German geologist Ferdinand Roemer, for whom so many of our plants are named, visited the El Capote ranch during his collecting trip to Texas in 1845-1847.
While the other identifications are ‘best guesses’ based on size, spine color, and other factors, there’s no doubting the plants’ membership in the the genus Opuntia, or the beauty of their flowers.
One of the prettiest drives in the Texas hill country, State Highway 337 offers scenery everyone can enjoy. Still, like many of these roads, it has more than a good view to offer. Highway cuts reveal layer upon layer of geological history, while cracks and crevices within the rock provide a home for plant life ranging from xeric ferns to blackfoot daisies.
Sometimes I’ll stop just to have a look, since much of the plant life isn’t obvious from the vantage point of a car, even at slower speeds. There’s always something to see, but now and then I get more than I bargained for.
When a friend and I stopped at one of the roadcuts in late March, a bit of red caught my attention. Across the road, at the top of the cliff, it led my eye to another bit of red, and then another. “What is that?” my friend asked. I didn’t know, but I attached a telephoto lens to my camera for a better look at what seemed to be clumps of flowers.
What I found astonished me. The cliffs were covered with cacti, all sporting bright red blooms. Apart from photos, I’d never seen such a thing.
Today, I’m fairly certain these are Echinocereus coccineus. A member of the family known familiarly as hedgehog cacti, this so-called claret cup is a variant of Echinocereus triglochidiatus. Characterized by sprawling clusters of stems that sometimes cover several square feet, both species can be distinguished from other hedgehog cacti by the rounded petals of their brilliant red or orange-red flowers.
Distinguishing E. coccineus and E. triglochidiatus in the field seems to be nearly impossible; the plants are similar enough that chromosomal analysis may be necessary for a firm identification.
On the other hand, location can provide a starting point, since their ranges are largely — though not completely — separate. In Lance Allred’s Enchanted Rock: A Natural and Human History, he identifies the claret cup found at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area as E. coccineus. Given Enchanted Rock’s relative proximity to the spot where these flowers were blooming — about a hundred miles — I suspect E. coccineus is the species I found.
Whichever species of Echinocereus these may be, their exuberant bloom proved once again that there’s no predicting what might be found on any given day. Beyond that, their discovery reminded me to always — but always — carry a telephoto lens. Even when hunting for pretty flowers, you never know when it might come in handy.