Bluebonnets in the Chihuahuan Desert

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When Texans speak of spring wildflowers they usually mean Bluebonnets. And the only bluebonnet that grows abundantly here in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Bluebonnet, Lupinus havardii. This bluebonnet occupies a very narrow range along the corridor of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend. But here, it’s the champion bluebonnet and provides the majority of our spring color.

Lupinus havardii plants are the tallest of all bluebonnets. Here is a photo of me, taken in the 80s, standing next to a group of this species. As you can see, they are tall; sometimes three or four feet tall!

Height

Lupinus havardii flowers are usually a deep blue/purple color. Now and then you may spot a white one, in which case it is your duty to tell all your friends just where you saw it. Visitors sometimes wear narrow paths from the road to an area where a white bluebonnet lives. Lupinus havardii has genes that enable it to create blue, yellow, red, and white. The deep blue/purple flower is the most common and the only color you’re likely to see unless you go hunting for different ones. But this year plants with different colors are occurring more frequently than usual, so I thought I’d share a few pictures of these varieties. I’ve not yet found a pink one, but I know they’re out there, and I’ll certainly keep looking.

Here is your basic bluebonnet. The backlighting reveals the arrangement of pigments. The red and yellow patches are quite visible on this blossom.

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And here is a stand of a lighter shade.

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Here is the much less common white bluebonnet.

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A stand of blue and white bluebonnets living in the same area.

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Now and then, a plant sports multiple colors on a single raceme

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I’ve heard that a single plant may create a multicolored raceme, and the usual deep blue racemes on different stalks, but that is another one I have not found yet.

Here is a typical scene on the River Road in the national park.

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I hope you can come out to see this bloom, but from what I understand, Central Texas is just as spectacular. Texas is a great place this time of year.

 

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CLOSED

I’m just trying to get the word out … the Big Bend Ranch State Park closed today. All campsites are closing (even back-country permits), no permits of any kind issued. Day use is still permitted.

Coming up — all hotels, motels, Air B&B’s are being closed. All visitors are being asked to leave.

stupid virus …

Sorry 😦

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Cacti Part 10 ~ Queen of the Night (Peniocereus gregii)

This sprawling, stick-like plant cannot stand upright on its own, so it uses the stems of other plants, such as Creosote, for support. In the wild, the dull gray-green stems look like dead sticks and go largely unnoticed even by cactus lovers. The following photograph gives you an idea of just how hard-to-find this cactus can be.

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The bulk of the plant is even harder to see – impossible in normal circumstances – it consists of a large underground tuber which may weigh 70 pounds or more. I saw one of these tubers at a cactus show that was the size of a small watermelon.

Fortunately, our Queen of the Night is not that difficult to find during the month or so after blooming, for, in cactus terms, the fruit is enormous. At its smallest, the brilliant red fruit is larger than a loquat, and large ones look like small, red pears.

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But it is the flower that matters to most of us. Growing laterally from last year’s areoles, these spectacular blossoms open at dusk and close at sunrise. Miss seeing one that night and you will have to wait a year to try again.

Reaching 3 inches in diameter, the white blossoms fill the air with a heady fragrance which does not go unnoticed by its nocturnal neighbors. If you are watching on a moonlit night, you will see moths coming to feed, and where there are moths, there are bats. Spending an evening with one of these blooming beauties is a night you will never forget.

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Cacti Part 9 ~ Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)

The Glory of Texas cactus is another species that is the only one in its genus living in the Trans-Pecos. It is widely regarded as having the most beautiful blossom of all the cacti in Texas, a view with which it would be difficult to argue. Standing 3 to 7 inches tall, and growing to slightly 4 inches in diameter, this plant is easy to see, even when not in bloom.

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No other Texas cactus has spine characteristics like this one. The upper third of the stem sports spines that look something like wood shavings. These spines are flattened and grow from 2 to 5 inches long. The central and some radial spines are bi- or even tri-colored. The pinkish to reddish color covers the middle of the spine. The remaining parts are straw-colored.

This cactus is ribbed. Ribs may be straight or spiraled and number 813. They look to have been made by fusing tubercles together. In older plants and with good rains, the ribs are spread apart, and it becomes easier to see the plant’s spines.

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Flowers can be expected to occur between March and September, particularly after rains. The blossoms are between 2 and 5 inches in height and diameter. Tepals are reflexed with more pigment at the distal end of each tepal than at the center. They are a brilliant magenta; anthers are yellow with red-to-yellow stigma lobes. Flowers open mid-morning and remain open until afternoon, closing at night. They may reopen the next day, but that does not always occur.

Fruits are roughly ovoid, ¾ inch long at their largest. Fringed scales cover the fruit which dries out rapidly after reaching maturity.

Glory of Texas cacti are uncommon throughout their range, a situation made more acute by the fact that they are highly prized among collectors and are heavily harvested for the illegal cactus trade.

Thelocactus bicolor
The plants prefer silty to gravelly soils on level ground. They are particularly abundant on the Boquillas limestone formations that characterize so much of the basin terrains in the Big Bend area. It can be difficult to find one in bloom because of the short blooming period for each blossom. When one is in bloom, it would be hard to miss.

 

 

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Cacti Part 8 ~The Pineapple Cacti (Echinomastus)

These cacti are short, elongated globular, and almost completely covered by spines. Areoles are each on distinctive tubercles that are arranged in rows. They bloom from February to mid-March, opening shortly afternoon and remaining open until dusk. They re-open each day for the next 3–4 days. There are often extrafloral nectaries, but they are hidden by the plant’s spines.

Woven-Spine Cactus (Echinomastus intertextus)

This cactus is variable in almost every aspect of its life. Usually the spines do not completely obscure the stem, but not always. The dozen or more radial spines are closely appressed, forming a flat disc. There is usually but 1 central spine, porrect, slightly downward pointing and much shorter than the radials.

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Flowers are mostly white with cream-colored anthers. Style are red. This is the only Pineapple Cactus with red style.

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Warnock’s Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

This is the most common Echinomastus cactus in the Big Bend area. Usually less than 3 inches tall, it can grow to 8 inches in some places along the river. The 1115 radial spines grow in divergent directions unlike the flat disc-like growth of the Woven-Spine Cactus. Adults produce one central spine, porrect or an upward pointing spine.

Tan to straw-colored radial spines are gray at the base and chalky blue at the tips or on the entire spine. Central spines are the same color as the radials but blue-gray for half of their length.

Flowers are similar to others in the genus. They are white with bright yellow anthers. Style and stigma lobes are green. This combination of flower colors is diagnostic.

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Fruits are light green and remain on the plant after ripening.

Mariposa Cactus (Echinomastus mariposensis)

The Mariposa Cactus grows around Lajitas and in the eastern part of the national park. Though listed as threatened, it is widespread and abundant in its range. It does well on thin Boquillas limestone and on rocky stable substrates.

Mariposa Cactus grows from golf ball to tennis ball size. Its areoles produce 2532 overlapping ashy white radial spines. Commonly, 4 central spines, heavier than the radial spines, grow – 3 face down and 1 faces up. Typically their tips are darker than the rest of the spine. If the color covers the base of spines the plant doesn’t look so white.

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Photo by Joe Sirotnak

 

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Cacti Part 9 ~ Button Cacti

This small genus contains only 24 species, two of which live in the Trans-Pecos. Both are small, globose plants ranging from ½–1½ inches in diameter. Both contain toxins that protect them from being eaten.

Common Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

The Common Button Cactus prefers rocky places at 1,5005,600 feet elevation. It is a fuzzy white ball with 2040 slender, straight, slightly overlooking spines per areole. It blooms from February to April.

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The flowers of this plant are the smallest of any cactus species in the Trans-Pecos. They are tiny and pinkish with red to brownish midstripes, usually quite distinct. Filaments are red to yellow, anthers pink to creamy yellow and stigmas white. The spines on the apex may have dark tips.

The fruits are small, red, and shaped like little clubs.

Boke’s Button Cactus (Epithelantha bokei)

The Common Button Cactus is usually pretty spherical. But Boke’s Button Cactus usually has a flat top. Boke’s areoles grow 3050 radial spines. And while the Common Button Cactus’ spines are roughly overlapping, Boke’s are all appressed with little overlap.

Boke’s Button Cactus blooms between May and June. They flowers are white to very pale pink; sometimes the tepals will have pink to middle green midstripes. All other parts are similarly pale and variable.

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Overall Appearance

Though the two plants are similar, it easy to tell the difference if you can see them side by side. Boke’s Button Cactus looks, and feels smooth – no errant central spines arise from the surface to give the plant a prickly feel. The Common Button Cactus spines are fewer and less organized than Boke’s, and the elevated spines give this plant a slightly more prickly feel.

Another difference lies in the way the two plants deal with drought. The Common Button Cactus simply shrinks when dry, but Boke’s Button Cactus starts shrinking at the top. Later, when rains arrive, the Common Button Cactus swells and appears to “grow” bigger whereas Boke’s Button Cactus resumes growth but does not expand the drought ring. This leaves bands of the plant that are slightly smaller than the rest. It can look almost like frozen custard without the cone.

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I photographed this plant on a hill just east of the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

 

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Cacti Part 7 ~Echinocactus

Four species of Echinocactus live in the Chihuahuan Desert, only two of which appear in the Trans-Pecos – the Eagle-Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizontalonius) and Horse-Crippler (Echinocactus texensis).

You can easily recognize them on sight.

Eagle-Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizontalonius)

The Eagle-Claw or Turk’s Head cactus is common throughout the Big Bend region. It grows on any soil, including soils high in gypsum. Eight ribs support widely spaced areoles producing 13 lower central spines, predominately cross-ribbed, plus 2 upper-central spines that are much smaller. Five radial spines typically curve down towards the cactus’ body. Areoles are widely spaced, and the cactus’ flesh is plainly visible though that condition does not seem to attract many herbivores.

Turk's Cap

Dense wool-like trichomes cover the stem apex; the trichomes shrink as they age, but they are annually renewed just before blooming. The flowers are magenta or bright rose-pink. Flowers may appear between April and June; after rains between July and September, the plant may bloom again

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Horse Crippler (Echinocactus texensis)

Horse cripplers live in the eastern part of Brewster County, extending east beyond the Pecos River and north beyond the Trans-Pecos. They are uncommon-to-absent in most of the Big Bend, but appear briefly in the state park.

Horse Cripplers grow singly. The stem is severely depressed and may withdraw to below ground level when dry. However, with good rains, the stem may swell to a few inches in height. Mature plants always have 1327 ribs with sharp crests. White wooly trichomes cover the apex. Each areole has one central spine and usually 6 or 7 radials. The central spine can grow to 2 inches long and have a fierce appearance.

Here is a photo that shows how depressed the stem can be.

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And here is one after some good rains.

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This cactus blooms in April and May, opening in late morning and remaining open until late at night. The blossoms are smaller and paler than those of the Eagle Claw. Small mammals enjoy dining on the flowers, so finding one in pristine condition can be a challenge.

Fruits are bright scarlet maturing at ½ to 1 inch. Mature fruits can persist on the plant for months, but animals have usually eaten then before long.

The plant is exceedingly tough. You, and even your horse can step on it without harming the plant. However, the spines are tough enough to pierce just about anything that steps on them.

 

 

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Cacti Part 6 ~ The Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus Fissuratus

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The Living Rock cactus is an unusual cactus in many ways. For one thing, it is the only member of its genus living in the U.S. It lives only in the Trans-Pecos. It has no spines. It is toxic. It is usually almost-to-completely invisible, making it difficult to find during any time of the year outside of its blooming period. It flowers only in the fall. It has a taproot. It was recently the subject of a major bust of cattle rustlers who were caught with over 5000 plants stored in plastic bags.

It is extremely slow-growing, and outside of the small area around the Big Bend National Park, and Big Bend Ranch State Park, it is rare, even in its home territory. The above photograph shows one of these plants as it normally appear throughout the year. I have sharpened this image to make it easier to see.

Here in West Texas the plant is round, and rarely even an inch tall. When dry, its taproot shrinks and pulls the plant down, often until it is completely covered. The pointed “leaves” are tubercles. Each tubercle has a groove that widens towards the base which is covered with dull-colored trichomes. This image illustrates the plant more plainly than the first image.

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Flowers

Living Rock blooms from September to November. All flowers appear at the apex of the plant. They range from pink to magenta. Filaments are deep yellow with pale yellow to white styles and white stigma lobes.

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Look for Living Rock cacti in rocky limestone or igneous soils. The plant does not tolerate gypsum well.

A ring of cactus thieves that stole over 5,000 of these plants was busted a few years ago. Thousands of these plant still live in the greenhouse at Sull Ross and are looking for homes. I’ve distributed over a hundred of them, but there are still many awaiting adoption. We hope that some may be returned to property owners from whom they were stolen in the first place!

 

 

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