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 Hint of Things to Come

 

A tall and dramatic Liatris species, this prairie blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya, will come into full flower later in the summer. It blooms from the top down; here, it shows the first hints of its future color, as well as the pleasing structure of its buds.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Bouquet in a Blossom

 

If you enjoy a mixed bouquet, the Maryland milkwort (Polygala mariana) might appeal. Its pink-to-purple petals, combined with brightly colored accents, attracts the eye despite its small size; the densely-packed racemes of the plants shown here were only a half-inch in length.

As its name suggests, the plant can be found throughout the southeast and up the east coast. In Texas, it blooms in moist open pinelands and savannahs or on seepage slopes, and often is found in the sandy soils of the Big Thicket. At the Watson Rare Plant Preserve, Maryland milkwort filled a sunny, open area near the snowy orchids; in the Big Thicket’s Solo tract, they lay scattered along a sandy service road.

Several online sources describe the plant as having a single infloresence atop a simple stem, but I frequently have found the stem that supports the flowers branching near the top. 

Seen from above, the flowers have a pleasing symmetry. I found the bits of yellow described as stamen sheaths, but haven’t found a single online reference to the orange. The shape suggests they might be stamens; if anyone knows, I’ll add the information.***

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy yet another new flower from the Piney Woods: an intricate and colorful ‘mixed bouquet.’

 

 *** I found more information about the flowers’ various parts in a discussion of a related species: Polygala sanguinea, or purple milkwort.

It seems the lavender ‘petals’ actually are sepals, while the yellow and orange tube-like structures are the fused petals of individual flowers. At the center of the inflorescence, you can see unopened buds. As for color changes in the floral tubes, here’s what the article says:

“What explains the different colors of the floral tubes? If you look carefully, the yellow flowers are closest to the center of the display. They are the most recently in bloom, open for business, the bright yellow actively beckoning pollinators. The peach flowers have been open longer, and are shutting down. The deep pink flowers have been in bloom the longest, and are no longer seeking pollinators for themselves. This kind of color change is usually a plant adaptation to direct pollinators only to the receptive flowers that have not yet been pollinated. It makes the most efficient use of the pollinator’s efforts from the perspective of both the pollinator and the plant.”

As it turns out, ‘bouquet’ was a perfect description.

Comments always are welcome.