This week brings typically Texan temperatures to the area, along with typically North Texan (lack of humidity). When faced with the slow oven outside right now, it’s hard to believe that we already received nearly two inches of rain on Sunday morning, and that we were still dabbling in near-freezing temperatures at least once per week just over a month ago. Sure, that’s typical for Maine, but for Texas? Oy.
The upside to the odd temperatures and the fierce rains hitting much of West Texas is that the area’s most familiar component of the flora, the prickly pear, is doing all right. The vicious summers of 2011 and 2012 only slowed them down, and the odd 2013 spring meant that they bloomed later and stronger than usual. Normally, by the end of May, the blooms would be long gone, leaving only the developing fruit, known locally as “tuna,” attached to the cactus pads. This time, though, I lucked out, and managed to get quite a few excellent shots of an exploding semidesert and the life therein.
Among other things, the rains and cold brought out an anomaly. Normally, the flowers of Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri are a brilliant canary yellow, but the weather seemed to encourage the development of orange ones as well. If these appeared only on individual cacti, that might make sense, but any given clump might have one orange to every five yellow. It’s not completely unheard of at the ranch: my father-in-law showed me photos of the ranch in 1990 with the same phenomenon. Of course, 1990 was marked not only with an unusually cold winter (including the coldest temperature ever recorded in Dallas), but with torrential spring and summer rains that left the Brazos and Trinity Rivers flooding as far north as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Are the orange blooms stimulated by similar weather conditions, or are other factors involved? Time for more research.
As any entomologist will tell you, and Bug Girl in particular will tell you, the evolution of flowering plants and the domination of every landmass by insects go together like rum and Coke. Opuntia blooms produce impressive amounts of pollen, and the available protein in that pollen draws out any number of indigenous insects. Both native and honey bees go absolutely mad for prickly pear pollen and nectar, which made photographing them an aggravation. How are you supposed to get one to hold still when they’re practically rolling around in glee?
That attraction doesn’t stop with bees, either. While its jaws are better suited for cutting than mashing, this juvenile katydid had no problem trying its best to down as much pollen as it could muster. Grasshoppers occasionally accompany the katydids in hiding within the blooms, but they apparently have no interest in either blooms or pollen as food.
In any situation with lots of insect prey, you’ll find lots of predators, and Opuntia offers a handy hiding space and basking platform for them as well. Very occasionally, if you’re quiet and subtle, you might see a local fence swift (Sceloporus olivaceus) basking atop a prickly pear pad, snapping up bugs before returning to the top of the pad. No such luck this time, but closer viewing of this orange bloom revealed a rather large ambush bug hiding at its base. Considering the pain of their bite, I wasn’t so dumb as to try to capture it, so I settled for naming it “Irwin” before letting it go on its way.
Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.
Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.
(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)
Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)
This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.
The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.
And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.
Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.
Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.
Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.
In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.
The heat broke back in October, so the Czarina and I did for Thanksgiving weekend what most people do: we spent it with family. The difference is that we spent it with her family out at their ranch in West Texas. She got her fill of wide open vistas, and I had the chance to explore natural history at a time when most of the local flora was out of the way. Not all of it, of course: the resident agaves, cactus, salt cedar, and mesquite were just as common as usual, but the various grasses and small herbs were either dead or gone, giving clarity to previously overgrown areas. Combine that with a nearly full moon rising just before dark and both Jupiter and Aldebaran rising in the evening, and this was a perfect time to come out for a visit.
Comments Off on Tales From The Ranch: The Fall Visit
Okay, that’s a little lacking in context. How about this?
That’s not really fair. How about seeing a few of these with the flesh intact?
My in-laws’ ranch contains at least five distinct species of cactus, and the vast majority of it is the common prickly pear, in one form of Opuntia engelmannii or another. Out of those variations, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri is the most common. As with other cacti, O. englemannii protects itself with spines. Unlike all other cacti, Opuntia cacti also bear specialized hairlike spines called glochids, which catch in the skin and break off.
(Some of you may be familiar with the story of Commander Nishino Kozo, who led the first Japanese attack on the US mainland during World War II. The popular account of the shelling of the Ellwood oil fields near Santa Barbara was due to Nishino’s first visit to the area while a freighter captain: he fell into a prickly pear cactus and was so humiliated by oil rig workers laughing at him over it that he swore revenge. Having done the same thing, and having to wait for the glochids to fall out, a very long and uncomfortable process, we should be glad that Commander Nishino didn’t go a lot further.)
Sadly, by the end of May, the gorgeous yellow blooms on O. englemannii are already long-gone, and the fruit won’t turn purple when ripe until about the beginning of October. In the meantime, May is a good time to examine the growing fruit. An average prickly pear can carry anywhere between one to 25 of these fruit, depending upon the prior season. Last year, for instance, the drought caused most of the prickly pear to drop their fruit early, leading to a corresponding lack of autumn food for cattle, deer, birds, coyotes, raccoons, and pigs. This spring, though, the rains were both abundant and frequent, so expect a bumper crop of “tuna” come Halloween.
In the interim, because growing conditions are so amenable, the prickly pear take advantage of late spring to do most of their growing. The young pads give hints of their relations to other flowering plants, at least until the fleshy spikes turn into standard and glochid spines.
As far as growing Opuntia is concerned, the trick isn’t trying to keep it alive. It’s trying to kill it off. Prickly pears are notoriously forgiving in their growing conditions, only needing very good drainage and no chance of sitting in overly moist ground for more than a few days. Because the pads are mostly water (the pads are technically edible if peeled and cooked, with a consistency somewhere between cantaloupe and raw squash and a flavor best described as “acquired taste”), prickly pear can’t handle long periods of sub-freezing weather, so they need to be protected if grown in areas with significant amounts of snow and ice. Other than that, though, they’re nearly unstoppable. As Australians learned to their peril when prickly pear was introduced to the continent, if the cactus is burned or chopped down, it resprouts from the roots. If a single pad is left behind, no matter seemingly how mangled, it can and will root and grow into a whole new bush before too long. Worst of all, each prickly pear fruit is full of incredibly tough seeds, and they can and will sprout just about anywhere they land. When birds eat the fruit, seeds and all, those little chunks of aquarium gravel can end up sprouting in cliff faces, atop sandy washes, and even in places you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, that’s an O. englemannii growing in a tree. It’s been there for at least thirty years, and considering the slow rate of decay of most wood on the ranch, it may be there for another twenty before the stump finally snaps and throws it to the ground. After that, it’ll probably scatter pads and form a whole new clump. So far, that cactus has survived two major droughts, although last year’s drought almost got it, along with cattle nibblings, several bad blizzards, and the occasional overly enthusiastic deer hunter. At the rate it’s going, it’ll probably outlive all of us.