As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)
Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?
If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.
As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.
This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)
All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?
Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.