At first glance, the Chihuahuan Desert appears as little more than a vast ocean of undulating waves of creosote crashing against striking outcrops of silhouetted bluffs along the distant horizon. The desert is, however, much more than that. Those who take the time to look beyond the ubiquitous creosote will discover a botanically rich and colorful environment bursting with life.
Most folks are familiar with the prickly pear, one of the most easily identifiable plants in the Trans-Pecos. There is, however, a variety of prickly pear that is found only in the Big Bend region of the Lone Star Stare — the purple prickly pear. Its scientific name is opuntia azurea. Spanish speakers call this distinctive cactus coyotillo or nopal coyotillo.
Because the purple prickly pear is endemic to the Big Bend region, it is also referred to as the Big Bend prickly pear. Intensely beautiful yellow flowers grace this plant from March through May and then are followed by juicy and edible red/purple fruits. As the plant ages, its long spines turn from golden or reddish to almost black.
I recently found several purple prickly pear plants at Dos Arbolitos, our little place in the Big Bend Valley region of Terlingua Ranch. I am working to identify all of the plants, shrubs, and trees on our property and am committed to learning how to nurture and care for them. Having purple prickly pear on our acreage is an added bonus.
If you have an opportunity to visit the Big Bend region of Texas, take the time to walk slowly along hiking trails and look for the small things that make the Chihuahuan Desert a really beautiful place. I think you will agree that there is much more to the desert than you ever realized.