Prickly But Pretty

Opuntia cacanapa ~ El Capote Ranch, Gonzales County

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.

Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri  ~ Old Willow City Road, Gillespie county

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.

Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sabinal river crossing, Bandera County

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Passion For Opuntia

Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) ~ Galveston Island

The barrier islands of the Texas coast are well enough known for the beachcombing, fishing, and partying they offer. But behind the dunes, a world of flowering plants and grasses holds sway, including several species of cacti.

On my neighborhood islands — Galveston, Follett’s, and Brazos — at least three species of prickly pear can be found in addition to Opuntia engelmannii: O. humifusa (previously O. compressa), O. macrorhiza, and O. stricta, which is nearly spineless. Still, my favorite is the common Texas prickly pear.

Flowers range from a bright, clear yellow to orange, or even red. Sometimes, flowers of all three colors appear on the same plant. Many flowers combine colors and, as they age, even the brightest yellow fades toward the same delicate, peachy hue that characterizes the buds.

Yellow prickly pear flowers on Follett’s island

The petals of aging flowers sometimes seem to thin; in the right light, they can glow like paper lanterns.

A flower still blooms along the Blue Water highway at sunset

Regardless of color, prickly pear flowers contain an abundance of pollen. Bees, flies, beetles, and ants are common pollinators, with larger bees taking advantage of the easy access to pollen provided by the flowers.

Here, a bee pauses before taking the plunge, perhaps to appreciate the riches spread before it. When it comes to the prickly pear — the state plant of Texas — the bee and I are equally appreciative.

 

Comments always are welcome.
A note regarding taxonomy:  Some sites consider O. engelmannii and O. lindheimeri to be separate species. Others continue to list the Texas prickly pear as O. engelmannii var. lindheimeri. For  a comparison of the species, click here. (The site as a whole is an excellent resource.)

 

Hidden In Plain Sight

Between Medina and Vanderpool, Texas

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.

Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) ~ Bandera County, Texas

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.

claret4

Comments always are welcome.