Tag Archives: glyptodonts

Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

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.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

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?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

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.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

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.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

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.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

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.

Introducing Lupinus texensis

The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.

Lupinus texensis

As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.

Texas bluebonnets

Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.

Fields of bluebonnets

To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.

More fields of bluebonnets

And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.