Echinocereus is a genus of ribbed small to medium sized cylindrical cacti that live in very sunny, rocky places. The flowers are usually large and long lasting, and the fruit is edible. The plants are bushy with tight spines which are often colorful and decorative.
The name comes from the Greek “echinus” meaning “hedgehog” and “cereus” meaning candle. Twelve species of this genus reside in the Trans-Pecos, but only we will look at only five here.
Texas Claret-Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)
The Claret Cup cacti are justifiably popular. They grow everywhere throughout the Trans-Pecos. They are usually multi-stemmed and can develop into large mounds that may contain hundreds of stems.
During the blooming season, every stem of the plant will flower, often many at a time. The result is a flower show unmatched by any other cactus in the area. This plant lies on the southern outskirts of Ft. Davis, Texas.
The coccineus species contains many variants, which belonging to whom is still under debate. For the time being, the most that you will see are of the E. coccineus var. paucispinus variety. “Paucispinus” means “few spines.” This species has fewer spines than any other Echinocereus cactus. Often there are no central spines and only 4 or 5 radial spines.
Flowers appear between March and April. They are cup-shaped with a waxy appearance and rounded tepals. The color is dark red, though this species hybridizes readily with other Echinocereus, and flowers may be orange. Fruits are usually bright red.
Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)
This is known as the Rainbow Cactus because of the contrasting spine coloration that often appears along the stem.
The coloration varies among different individuals. A plain white variety occurs frequently.
Flowers appear from March to May. They are large, showy and yellow, sometimes being as wide as the plant’s stem. But flower colors and size are as variable as most other characteristics of this species. The most common variant is a peach color which sometimes appears with the same cluster of yellow ones.
Spines too many, and too small to be worth counting as the general appearance of the plant is consistent. All the spines are of roughly the same size. The tubercles are arranged in neat vertical rows which contrast with the green flesh just barely visible beneath them.
The fruits usually mature to a dark purple and are large – almost 2 inches long and just under 2 inches wide. Spines fall from the fruit with time. There is a hybrid of this cactus that has magenta flowers.
Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus)
This Strawberry Cactus, Echinocereus stramineus var stramineus, is the “true” Strawberry Cactus of the region. The contender to the throne is the Echinocereus enneacantha, an inferior cactus which should be banished from the realm. (OK, I made that up, but the fruits of that one are smaller.) The name “stramineus” means made of straw, and indeed, these plant do justice to their name.
The Strawberry Cactus, sometimes called the Pitaya Cactus, grows mostly on exposed limestone outcroppings in the Big Bend region and on the south slopes of higher mountains such as the Franklins. It grows almost as well on the igneous gravels of the Bofecillos mountains.
The Strawberry Cactus has an average of 12 ribs per stem, though there may be as many as 17. There are 2–4 central spines and 7–10 radials, up to 3.5 in all very thin. You shouldn’t have to count though – no other plant in the area has a spiny appearance that can match this one’s.
This cactus bloom’s from March to May, and it produces one of the most brilliant display of flowers you can see here. The flowers can be up to 5 inches long and wide and large, mature plants can have dozens of them. Blossoms frequently cover a plant so thoroughly, that the cactus body can barely be seen at all.
This strawberry looks like stramineus’ poor cousin. Its fruits, flowers, stems, and spines are all smaller. There are 1–3 central spines, less than 3½ inches long, though usually less, and the radial spines up to 1.6 inches long. Stems usually carry 7 or 8 ribs. Bright magenta flowers appear in April and May; they reach 3.1 inches in length and diameter. But the biggest difference with enneacanthus is that the stems are visible and are medium to light green, even turning yellowish in some specimens.
The fruits look like those of stramineus but are no longer than 1½ inches compared to stramineus’ fruits that can grow to 2½ inches in length and width. Both species’ fruits are bright red, and both are edible, though enneacanthus fruits are not as sweet or flavorful. Echinocereus enneacanthas occurs on a variety of soils and sometimes under other shrubs. Stramineus’ range extends further east, but the plant is usually found not more than 50 miles from the river.
Rusty Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus var russanthus)
The Rusty Hedgehog Cactus is a member of a larger group of plants known as the Green-Flowered Hedgehogs. Only this one has reddish rusty-colored flowers. But “they” have promised me that it is a real viridiflorus cactus.
Rusty Hedgehog is endemic to the Trans-Pecos, occupying a limited area in Brewster Co. I have never seen it in the state park, but it does well in the national park. The rusty red funnelform flowers are less than ½ inch wide. Anthers and style are pale yellow. The plant is super spiny with 9 –12 central spines and 30–45 radial spines growing from each areole. Spines grow up to 1½ inches long. Many are reddish. The flesh can sometimes be seen, and the whole effect is of a somewhat colorful plant. You won’t be likely to confuse this species with any other Rusty Hedgehog.
Fruits are oval to almost spherical less than ½ inch in diameter. They start green and mature to a dull red or rreddish brown. The fruits are edible, but have little sugar. They stay on the plant a long time.