Several years ago in an article on prickly pears I mentioned the most famous of prickly pear parasites, the Cochineal bug. A specially-bred strain of this tiny insect produced the brightest, most permanent red dye in the world. In time, it became Spain’s second most valuable export (after silver). It was worth more than its weight in gold, and the Spanish jealously guarded its secret for over 300 years.

The story of this tiny insect and its impact on modern history is beyond the scope of this little blog, but the book A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield tells it in fascinating detail.

So why another post on Cochineal? It’s just because I happene3d to get a decent picture of a cochineal patch the other day and wanted to share it with you. You can easily see the insects near the top of the image and the red spots show the brilliant red color for which they are famous. Incidentally, near the bottom right you can also see one of the plant’s tubercles filled with the tiny spines, called glochids, that plants of the Opuntia family make.

Cochineal on a Prickly Pear

Cochineal on a Prickly Pear

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The Yuccas

One of the most distinctive plant families of the desert are the yuccas. They grow throughout the American Southwest, Mexico, and South America. Yuccas were always considered valuable by native tribes who used them for food, fiber, and soap-making. People still gather the edible fruits, eat the flower petals in soups and salads, peel apart the leaves for the long, tough fibers, and boil the roots to make soap. Though uncommon now, you can still buy all of these products in specialty market places.

Though there are 40 – 50 species, only a few are common in the Big Bend region.

Spanish Dagger

One of the most visible yuccas in this region is the Spanish Dagger. At 8 feet or more in height, it is an impressive plant. The leaves are long, thick, and very sharp so be careful when approaching them.

Giant Spanish Dagger

This 21 foot Spanish Dagger may be the tallest in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Their huge flower heads are quite noticeable in the spring when large numbers of them frequently bloom at the same time. Each flower starts out with a dark wine-colored tip, but it fades to a rich cream color as it opens.

Flower Stalk

Spanish Dagger flower stalks can grow to be almost 3 feet tall and a foot in diameter

 Thompson Yucca (Yucca rostrata)

This is the beauty queen of the yucca tribe. It grows to great heights (20–30 feet), mature ones may have multiple shaggy trunks, and many trunks divide into several branches. The rosettes of leaves at the top, and the tall white flower stalks make a showy spectacle year round.

Thompson Yucca is the most popular yucca for gardeners. Tens of thousands of them have been dug up for resale in nurseries throughout the southwest. The plants are easy to propagate and grow, and they live a long time.

Thompson Yuccas in Bloom

Thompson Yuccas in Bloom

You can distinguish Thompson Yuccas from Spanish Daggers by their leaves. Spanish Dagger leaves are thick and stout, but Thompson Yucca leaves are thin and narrow. Also, they have have horny or saw-toothed edges. A little hook, or “beak” grows on the tip of the fruits, a feature which gives this yucca one of its other popular names, the “Beaked Yucca.”

Soaptree Yucca

Native residents of the Southwest quickly discovered that the juices of the Soaptree Yucca makes an excellent soap. They bathed in it, washed their hair in it, and used it for laundry. It is particularly good for woolens because it does not make the fibers clump like modern soaps and shampoos do. Though the Soaptree Yucca can grow as tall as 30 feet, most are not much taller than a grown adult.

Soaptree Yucca in Bloom

Soaptree Yucca with Seed Pods

The Soaptree Yucca likes higher elevations, so you will probably see more of them in the Big Bend Ranch State Park than you will in the national park. The leaves are long, thin, and have a silvery edge. Also, you will usually find a nest of curly fibers growing near the base of the leaves. The flower heads are not as spectacular as many other yuccas, but the plant has a fine, feathery look to it that gives it a unique beauty.

Yuccas and Moths

Yuccas are pollinated exclusively by yucca moths with whom they have developed a uniquely close relationship. For each kind of yucca, there is one particular yucca moth that pollinates it. Without the moth, the yucca cannot set seed; the moth relies entirely on the yucca for food and shelter. During the day, moths hide inside yucca blossoms, safe from predators. At night, they come out, pollinate the flowers, and lay their eggs.

Moth on flower

Yucca Moth Gathering Pollen

Unlike most moths, yucca moths do not have the long nectar-sipping tongue of their relatives. Instead, the female yucca moth has a set of tiny tentacles around her mouth. She uses the tentacles to gather yucca pollen which she then rolls into a tiny ball which just fits a depression under her “chin.”

Once she’s collected enough pollen, she flies to another blossom and checks to make sure that no other moth has been there before. She will not lay eggs on a blossom that has another moth’s eggs in it. When she finds a suitable blossom she punches a hole in the base of the flower near the ovaries and deposits a few eggs. Then she climbs the flower pistil, removes the ball of pollen from under her chin and carefully packs it into a receptacle in the stigma, thereby ensuring that the flower is pollinated and will produce lots of juicy seeds for the moth’s larva.


Yucca Moth Pollinating a Blossom

Moths are careful not to lay too many eggs in one flower. If the moth gets greedy and lays too many eggs in one place the plant drops the pod, thereby losing the seeds but also killing the over-greedy larvae.

When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the growing seeds. The seeds match the larva’s nutritional needs perfectly, so each larva needs only a few seeds to mature. When the larva is fully developed it chews a little hole in the yucca pod wall, climbs out, and drops to the ground. Then it burrows several inches underground where it goes into the cocoon stage to wait out the winter. When warm temperatures and summer rains arrive, the yuccas begin to bloom again and the pupated yucca moths emerge from underground to start the cycle anew.


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Photography in the Big Bend Ranch State Park

Basin Photo

Flat Terrain of the Chihuahuan Desert

Each season of the year holds its own set of wonders and draws visitors from all walks of life: tourists, hikers, campers, naturalists, and sports enthusiasts. Photographers love it, too. Fall and winter are perhaps the most popular seasons, when cool, sunny days abound and the palette is composed mostly of earth tones. Springtime is marked by the brilliance of cacti, ocotillo and yucca erupting into flower, a precursor of the summer rainy season when the desert really comes to life. No matter the time of your visit, you will experience stunning landscapes and expansive skies. Here are some ideas to help you get the best pictures possible during your visit.

No matter what your skill level or quality of equipment, there’s nothing you can do that will net you better pictures than getting out of the car and walking. You needn’t go on long hikes— beautiful pictures are often only a few car lengths away. The smallest, driest creek beds frequently turn into amazing canyons “just around the bend.” Dramatic cliff and hilltop vistas are easily reachable from every road in the park.

photographer at Tapado Canyon

This spot is less than 500 yards from the parking lot.

Scout Locations
Movie makers and professional photographers often spend a lot of time “scouting locations.” They are thinking about the pictures they would like to take, and at what times of the day the pictures would look the best. You can do the same thing. Pay attention to the sun and how the shadows lie. Try to imagine how the sun will traverse the sky and what will happen to the scene during the course of the day. Carry a compass and note the direction in which features lie. Make notes and come back later to verify your guesses. If you were right, take the picture and congratulate yourself on having “scouted” a great location.

Flatirons during the day

Thiis Formation Faces West. It will be a perfect sunset shot!

Do Your Homework
If you find you’re getting hooked on taking great pictures, it’s time to take the next step— finding potential locations in advance. For this you will need maps. The park’s Discovery Map is the best, but topographic maps from the Internet or from mapping programs will also work. If you’re interested in wildlife, look for springs and green areas you think you can walk to. These isolated watering spots are great places to find plants and animals of all kinds.

Encino Springs

Damp Areas are Wildlife Magnets!

If you’re mostly interested in landscapes, look for spots where the elevation lines (contours) are closely spaced. Closely spaced contour lines indicate steep mountainsides, high cliffs, and the walls of scenic canyons. When the lines bend into points along water courses, you’re likely to find dramatic pour-offs and creek beds filled with colorful boulders.

Increase the Odds

contour lines on a map

Lots of Contour Lines Indicate Great Views

If your stay will be short and your main goal is to capture great images, you’ll want to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Start by learning when the sun and moon rise and set. Get the positions on the horizon for these events, too. Then plot these angles against the locations you’ve scouted on your map to get an idea of how the light will play out during  the day.

Get a GPS
Repeat visitors can profit from carrying a GPS that tracks your walks. Set annotated “waypoints” at places you see pictures you’d like to take when conditions are better. Take a few snapshots of the area and let your mapping software link them to the map to help you remember what you were looking at when you were there.

Carry Filters

graduated nd filter

Graduated Filters help tame Bright Skies

West Texas skies tend to be very bright, and the land tends to be dark—the range of light is too wide for any camera. Graduated neutral density filters tame the contrast and help you take great shots  with colorful skies and properly exposed foregrounds as well. EnjoyAbove all, get out and enjoy the outdoors, away from the car and off the road. You’ll get better pictures and create tangible memories to take home from your trip, and carry with you for a lifetime.

Posted in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Photography | 10 Comments

Jatropa dioica (Leatherstem)

Leatherstem grows as loosely clustered individual stems that grow straight up from the ground, curving downwards in a gentle arch. It is a member of the Euphorbia family, a relationship which is easily seen in the following photograph. The dark reddish-brown plant in the foreground is the Leatherstem. The pale bluish-green one behind is a Candelilla, also a member of the Euphorbia family.

Leatherstem and Candelilla Growing Side-by-Side

Leatherstem and Candelilla Growing Side-by-Side

You’re not likely to notice this plant unless growing conditions are good. At these times, the stems turn a bright red and the leaves a bright green. If you handle one of the stems when the plant is well hydrated, you will quickly understand how it gets its name, for the stems are so supple that they can be tied into loose knots without breaking.

Leatherstem with Foliage

Leatherstem with Foliage

The flowers are small, pale and urceolate, or urn-shaped. Though small, they will certainly catch your eye as you walk past.

Leatherstem Blossoms

Leatherstem Blossoms

The fruits, on the other hand are surprisingly large, sometimes growing to the size of small grapes.

Leatherstem Fruit

Leatherstem Fruit

The fleshy stems and roots contain tannins which turn bright red upon exposure to the air. It is from the reddened sap that the Spanish name “Sangre de Drago” arises. The sap is highly astringent and topically anti-inflammatory. Native tribes sharpened stems or roots to massage their gums. Chewing the plant gives relief for mouth sores and the juice was applied to hemorrhoides, and to scrapes, cuts, and skin rashes to soothe irritation and stop bleeding. Jatropha dioica is known to have been used since Aztec times in Mexico; its use fixative or “amacizador” of teeth has been confirmed in recent research.

This plant is easily cultivated as long as it is given full sun, thorough drainage, and not too much water. It is, however, a succulent and can be hurt during a hard freeze or severe drought. However, its large root system usually allows it to make a good recovery after being damaged.

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New Book Available


There are more than 50 campsites in the Big Bend Ranch State Park that you can reach by vehicle. I’ve just finished a book on these campsites, and you can download a copy here:

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The Javelina Clays

The Big Bend region contains many areas that are commonly called “badlands.” Badlands are areas where soft sedimentary rock has been exposed and heavily eroded by wind and water. The Lakota called the topography “Makhóšiča,” meaning literally bad land, while French trappers called it “les mauvaises terres à traverser” – “the bad lands to cross.” The term badlands is apt: badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which impede travel and other uses. Badlands form in semi-arid or arid regions with infrequent but intense rain-showers, sparse vegetation, and soft sediments: a recipe for massive erosion.


A Bad Land to Cross

The Javelina Clays, a late Cretaceous deposit, comprise most of Big Bend’s badlands; one of the best areas to see them lies at the western extremes of Big Bend national park, and continues through Study Butte west to Terlingua. The clay here is mostly bentonite and is varicolored in shades of yellowish brown, pink, grey, green, and maroon. 


Sometimes the Clays are Blue

Yellows May Turn Orange in the Late Afternoon Light

Yellows May Turn Orange in the Late Afternoon Light

The formation is closely allied with the Aguja Formation, which is made of yellowish grey to dark brown medium-grained sandstone interbedded with yellowish-brown and maroon clay. It is fine textured and appears to have no particular structure. 

Aguja Formation

Aguja Formation

The area is interesting to geologists and paleobiologists because dinosaur bones and silicified and agatized wood fragments are widely scattered throughout the material. 

Silicified Materials Show Remarkable Detail

Silicified Materials Show Remarkable Detail

Agatized Wood is Extremely Durable but Reveals Little Detail of its Origins

Agatized Wood is Extremely Durable but Reveals Little Detail of its Origins

Photographers like the area because of the unique way in which these clay deposits weather and because of the many colors to be found in the landscape here. The clay is impervious and weathers characteristically into rounded topographic forms.

The Otherworldly Look of the Javelina Clays

The Otherworldly Look of the Javelina Clays

A geologist named J. A. Udden wrote the best description of the area I have ever read:

They are so fine in texture as to be quite impervious to water. Inversely they will not yield enough moisture to enable plants to grow, except where their surface has been mixed with or covered by some land drift.

When rain falls the surface of the bare clay swells up into an exceedingly sticky mud, which renders the land practically impassable to man and beast. Pools of water will stand on the ground after heavy showers and they will evaporate away by heat and sunshine while only a small part of the moisture filters into the clay. When the ground dries, the clay shrinks and cracks extensively, but as the moisture only affects the upper one or two feet, the cracks are limited to the same depth. The clay retains the moisture with such tenacity that the outer layers of a moist lump will warp and break off while the kernel is yet somewhat plastic. As a result, the drying clay breaks up into irregular, angular, hard lumps, less than an inch in diameter. These cover the unweathered strata beneath to depths of from one to three feet on hills and slopes where the clay is bare. They are hard and tough, sometimes wholly separate from each other, and sometimes partly adhering. With every rain the process is repeated, the lumps swell up and are again dried and warped. The swelling as well as the warping produces a small creeping motion among the clay lumps, small in extent but evidently powerful. On slopes gravity aids all movements in a downward direction and counteracts all other movements. In the long run the accumulated effect of this influence results in a motion in the direction of the slope. The whole bed of clay lumps thus creeps forward like a glacier. The movement is evidently very slow, but many of the clay hills show unmistakable indication of its reality in rounded flowing contours.

Manganese Imparts a Purplish Hue to Mudstones and Clays

Manganese Imparts a Purplish Hue to Mudstones and Clays

Another feature which gives visual interest to the area is the presence of numerous intrusive dikes arising vertically from the surface. The soft clays are quickly washed away, leaving behind tall walls that look positively constructed but whose purpose is both unknown and unknowable. 

Massive Dikes Look "Constructed"

Massive Dikes Look “Constructed”

In its forms, textures and colors, the Javelina clays present a visual feast for photographers. They are certainly worth visiting if you’re in the area. 

The Cretaceous Javelina Clays

The Cretaceous Javelina Clays

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Desert Night-Blooming Cereus

Desert Night-Blooming Cereus

Peniocereus gregii. Considered rare in this area, the Desert Night Blooming Cereus is difficult to photograph. The blossoms open only once, after dark, and close at first light. Moreover, because this cactus cannot support its own weight, it always grows inside another “nurse plant.”

This photo was taken with the aid of a bit of flash and a pocket LED penlight. Worth the wait, though…

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