When you think of the desert, you don't typically think of a botanically-rich environment full of life. Striking landforms dominate horizons in Big Bend National Park, so it's easy to miss the small details along the ground. A variety of textures and colors paint a unique palette, and the desert rains bump up the saturation.
"Strawberry Cactus" is a generic name for a number of species, mostly in the Echinocereus genus. But E. stramineus is considered the true Strawberry Cactus because of the large, tasty fruit that resemble strawberries, although many cacti species produce red fruit. E. stramineus can grow into a large clump measuring up to a few feet wide and the long, and the golden spines make it particularly attractive. This species thrives in the harshest areas of the park and far west Texas, occurring along exposed, rocky areas below 5,000' where much else doesn't.
There are only two species of Echinocactus occurring in Texas, and E. horizonthalonius is more restricted to the drier climate in the Big Bend region. It is quite common in the park and is distinguished by its blue color and contrasting red spines.
Opuntia, or Prickly Pear, grows all over Texas and in many different species. O. rufida is commonly called Blind Prickly Pear because of the lack of long, distinguishing spines associated with most Prickly Pears and the blindness-inducing glochids affecting cattle. I'm attracted to the patterns created by the aforementioned glochids.
This is the second Echinocereus species documented in this post, and probably has one of the most unique growth habits, exhibiting rings of red and white spines. E. dasyacanthus can be tricky to identify because of its propensity to hybridize with similar species of the same genus. Flower colors can vary from red to pink to yellow. This species is found from lower, hotter elevations to the cooler, more forgiving environs of higher mountains.
This was, by far, the most exciting find in Big Bend. Ariocarpus fissuratus is a rare species that has been heavily poached in the region. It is the only Ariocarpus species found in the United States. You usually only notice Living Rock Cactus when they bloom, happening just one day in the fall. During drier times, the cactus can shrink to nearly below the soil surface. The plant is said to have mild hallucinogenic qualities.
This cactus also has a blueish-gray stem thinly masked by a network of gray spines. Growing in lower elevations of southern Presidio and Brewster counties, Echinomastus warnockii is quite prevalent. This species is named for Barton Warnock, a Texas-born botanist who taught at Sul Ross State University for more than 50 years.
This species is only found in the Big Bend region of Texas and is defined by its red spines. In the spring, it blooms rust-colored flowers, which gives it the name russanthus, "russus" meaning "red" in Latin, and "anthos" meaning "flower" in Greek.
This Opuntia species has an extremely restricted distribution area inside of the national park in southwest Brewster County near the Hot Springs and the village of Boquillas.
Taking a different form than the previous Opuntias species detailed here, this cactus still belongs to the same genus. Christmas Cholla gets the name from its practice of holding the bright red fruit through the winter. Spines can vary in color and quantity. I have also documented this cactus here.
Sea Urchin Cactus gets its common name for obvious reasons. This species is found throughout much of the park north and northeast of the Chisos Mountains. The brown-black tips to the spines make this cactus particularly attractive.
This Purple Prickly Pear was especially attractive in the rains. There are several types of Opuntia azurea in the Trans-Pecos and inside Big Bend National park, but this species is only found in Brewster County.
Mammillaria meiacantha is one of two very similar Mammillaria species found in Texas. The first is M. heyderi and is found throughout much of west Texas. M. meiacantha instead grows in higher elevations in the Trans-Pecos north into mountains in New Mexico. This species is defined by less spines that are more robust than its more prevalent cousin. This particular specimen was photographed in the Chisos Basin.
Hechtia texensis is a type of pineapple plant, or bromeliad, that grows in western portions of the park in the harshest conditions, along exposed limestone cliffs. This plant grows well in cultivation as I have had one in a pot for several years now.
Ferocactus is a barrel cactus that grows in many areas of the southwest U.S. Giant Fishhook Cactus gets its name from the recurved spines. This cactus occurs in lower elevations of the park and west Texas. It's usually pretty easy to spot due to its red coloring. This particular specimen was photographed along Old Maverick Road in the eastern part of park. And this one is pretty large, too.
Another atypical Opuntia species, O. aggeria grows in low, clumping mats in a fairly limited region of southern Brewster County inside of the national park.
Yucca elata is the tallest growing species of yucca in the park and Texas. Because of its height, its Spanish name is Palmilla, or "small palm" in English. This specimen was about 15 feet tall with a 4 foot seed head. Yucca thompsoniana is a shorter-growing yucca, staying under 10 feet.
This is another low-growing Echinocereus species that blooms a brilliant magenta in the spring. The common name Pitaya comes from the name of cactus fruit relating to the genus Stenocereus. I have also documented this cactus before in Mason County here.
Escobaria sneedii is a rare species only found in a few counties in Texas and is listed as an endangered species, and specifically "Imperiled" by NatureServe, meaning only 1,000-3,000 occurrences in the wild. It has been over-harvested in the wild due to its petite size and tolerance for colder climates.
The common name for this cactus is fairly generic at Big-Needle Pincushion Cactus. It occurs through the Big Bend region and southeast New Mexico. There is also a small population in the Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas. This specimen was photographed adjacent to the aforementioned Ferocactus hamatacanthus.