Purple Prickly Pear

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.

The Strawberry Cactus

I am struck by the singular beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. I really can’t explain why. It’s just something I feel deeply inside — something that causes me to be silent and, for lack of a better word, reverent.

While some may look at a vast desert landscape and regard it as nothing more than a hard and mournful kingdom of sand and rock and shrubs, it is indeed much more than that. The desert is a canvas on which the beauty and resilience of life is on display.

Anything that can survive and even thrive in the desert has my deepest respect and admiration. It is these survivors that each lend their respective beauty to the desert, some in ways more obvious than others. Among my favorites is the strawberry cactus.
The strawberry cactus is one of the most beautiful of desert plants. Its name is derived from the strawberry-flavored fruit that it produces. Its appearance has also earned it numerous aliases, including strawberry hedgehog, hedgehog cactus, porcupine hedgehog, straw-colored hedgehog, and pitaya.
While the desert intimidates other plants, the strawberry cactus is at home in the harsh environment of the Chihuahuan Desert. This hardy specimen can be found in most areas of Big Bend, from the low desert to mountain slopes as high as 5,000 feet.
The strawberry cactus grows in clumps that can be several feet in diameter. Throughout spring and early summer, these clumps are adorned with large and colorful flowers. The distinctively beautiful magenta flowers make the strawberry cactus easy to identify.
The reddish-purple fruit of the strawberry cactus ripens in July. Before eating it’s important to remove the thorns. The fruit has a tart-flavored taste that is similar to that of strawberries, hence the name. The fruit of the strawberry cactus has been a favorite of desert-dwellers for generations.
The next time you drive across the Chihuahuan Desert make it a point to look more carefully at the plants that call this wide part of Texas home. They are there because they are tough — and they each make a special contribution to life in the desert. Look carefully and you too will see a distinctive and singular beauty in desert places.

5 Facts About Red Buckeye

If you enjoy hiking in East Texas, you have likely seen the red buckeye on your treks. This handsome shrub shows off its clusters of firecracker-shaped blooms from March through May and then drops its leaves by summer’s end. This red-flowered plant also has a yellow-flowered cousin that can be found along streams in the western part of Texas. Red buckeye is named for the color of the flowers and the similarity of the seed to a deer or buck’s eye.
1. Red buckeye is a shrub with an alias.

Like other Texas plants, the red buckeye is also known as scarlet buckeye and as the firecracker plant — for obvious reasons. When in bloom, the red buckeye produces a cluster of tubular-shaped flowers that resemble firecrackers. This makes it easy to identify this shrub when hiking through our state parks.
2. Red buckeye is a beast.

While beautiful to behold, this beauty is a beast that packs some powerful poison in its seeds. Indigenous peoples crushed the seeds and put them in water in order to stupefy fish to make it easier to catch them. The toxin-packed seeds of the red buckeye have also killed cattle who feasted on them.
3. Red buckeye is favorite of hummingbirds.

While the toxicity of this plant poses a threat to humans, cattle, horses, and sheep, it is a favorite of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Even squirrels like to feast on the nuts produced by this leafy plant.
4. Red buckeye can help you clean up your act.

Indigenous people were really genius people who discovered more than the harmful side of shrubs and plants. Native Americans produced a foaming soap from the roots of the red buckeye as well as a black dye from the wood. Pretty clever stuff.
5. Pioneers found medicinal value in the red buckeye.

Native Americans and early pioneers made home remedies from the bitter bark of the red buckeye. Poultices were used to treat infections and sores. Like other plants, the red buckeye helped meet needs of both native Americans and early settlers who lived in the days before the conveniences we enjoy today.

Prairie Heritage Festival

The Prairie Heritage Festival is an annual event hosted by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. This free, fun, and family-oriented event is held each year on the first Saturday in November at Seabourne Creek Nature Park in Rosenberg.
If you have never visited Seabourne Creek Nature Park you should add it to your list of places to visit when you are in or near the greater Houston area. This park is maintained by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists and is fast becoming a great place to educate folks about what this part of Texas looked like before settlers arrived.
The Prairie Heritage Festival features a number of guests who man booths with hands-on activities, live animals, crafts for kids, informative displays about plants and critters of the Coastal Bend region, glimpses into pioneer life, info on our state parks, and much more. If you love the outdoors then you will love the Prairie Heritage Festival.
I enjoyed strolling from booth to booth to look at the various displays and ask questions. I learned some interesting stuff about cavity-nesting birds like bluejays, learned about butterflies, came face to face with a few snakes, an interesting little owl, and other wildlife. I especially enjoyed watching the kids interact with these critters.
I am grateful for the Texas Master Naturalists and all that they do to promote learning about our beautiful region of the Lone Star State. Seabourne is the perfect setting for this event. The master naturalists maintain an area in the park that shows what prairies along the coastal bend used to look like — a great place to learn about the native plants that give prairies their iconic look.
The master naturalists also teach about how we can all do our part to preserve, restore, and recreate native plants. You can even purchase prairie grasses and plants at the festival to plant in your own yard. My wife is determined to bring the prairie to our own backyard. I’m ok with that. And, be sure to visit the butterfly garden at Seabourne. All of the plants that attract butterflies are labeled so that you can know what to plant to start your own butterfly garden.
Be sure to save the date for next year’s Prairie Heritage Festival on your 2018 calendar. You can also learn about other fun and family-oriented events sponsored by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists by visiting their website.

Beach Morning-Glories

I am a big fan of hardy Texas plants — the kind that stubbornly display their beauty under the toughest of conditions. And when it comes to hardy plants in the Lone Star State, the beach morning-glory has definitely earned its place on the list. This is one tough yet essential plant that plays an important role on Texas beaches.
Beach morning-glories thrive in one on the most hostile environments in Texas — our beaches. This blossom-yielding vine is unaffected by the scorching heat, strong winds, and salt water along the 367 miles of Texas coastline. Regardless of what the Texas coast throws at this plant, it continues to thrive.
On a recent trip to Mustang Island State Park near Corpus Christi, beach morning-glories were on full display under overcast skies. The rain soaked dunes at the park were draped with beautiful morning-glory vines. These fast-growing vines can reach lengths of thirty feet. They play a key role in stabilizing sand dunes by sending their roots deep into the sand.
There are several species of morning-glories. The particular species I saw at Mustang Island was the Ipomoea pes-caprae also known as railroad vine, bayhops, and goat-foot because the two-part leaves resemble the footprint of a cloven hoof. This species produces a beautiful deep pink or fuchsia bloom.
Beach morning-glories bloom from April through December along Gulf Coast dunes and beaches. They add beauty to our Texas beaches while providing the essential service of stabilizing sand dunes and the barrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast. Look for this beautiful Texas wildflower the next time you take a stroll down one of our Texas beaches.

The Passion Flower

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling Texas backroads is the opportunity to see so many wildflowers on display. There are few things that will cause me to pull over to the side of the road quicker than the beckoning beauty of wildflowers. That’s why I keep my handbook of Texas wildflowers in my truck for easy access.
On a recent road trip that took us trough Marathon in far west Texas, my wife and I stopped to chat with the owner of a really cool bed and breakfast — styled in quintessential adobe accented with the vibrant colors of the southwest. A stroll through their courtyard garden brought us face to face with the beautiful passion flower.
The passion flower is one amazing flower, the product of a herbaceous vine that crawls and climbs with its auxiliary tendrils. This vine produces a showy flower and a fruit with edible pulp. When split open, the inside of the fruit resembles the inside of a pomegranate. Delicious! Reminds me of mangosteen which I first enjoyed in Cambodia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the passion flower is how it got its name. According to legend, a Jesuit priest discovered the vine in Peru in 1620. He was so captivated by the beauty of the flower that he had a vision in which he associated the components of the blossom with the passion Christ.
The Jesuit suggested that the ten petal-like parts of the flower represented the ten disciples (excluding Peter and Judas). The five stamens represented the wounds Jesus sustained in the crucifixion. The stigmas represented the nails and the fringe of the flower represented the crown of thorns. Additionally, he suggested the leaves were reminiscent of the Roman spear and the tendrils of the Roman whip. Thus the name — passion flower.

The passion flower is also known as the Maypop, a name that comes from the hollow, yellow fruits that make a popping sound when crushed. Regardless of the name, however, one thing is certain — this is one magnificent flower. There are more than 500 species of passion flower, any of which would make a wonderful addition to any garden. I’m certainly glad that the passion flower made its way to Texas — just one more beautiful thing to behold in the Lone Star State.

5 Facts About Sunflowers

One of the most distinctive flowers that grace our Texas highways is the sunflower. This tall and cheerful flower makes its debut in May and stays around until October. There are more than 15 different sunflower species native to Texas. Their bright yellow petals make them hard to ignore and a beautiful addition to any garden. Here are a few interesting facts about sunflowers.
1. Sunflower is the only flower with “flower” in its name.

The botanical name for the sunflower is helianthus annus. The word helianthus is derived from the Greek words helio (sun) and anthos (flower). The word annus simply means that sunflowers are annual or flowers that only live for a single growing season.


2. Sunflowers faithfully follow the sun.

The sunflower actually follows the sun throughout the day — a characteristic called heliotropism. By following the sun, the sunflower makes the very best use of light and maintains a higher temperature that attracts bees and other pollinators. Interestingly, the French word for sunflower is tournesol which means to turn with the sun. The Spanish word for this cheerful flower is girasol which means to track or follow the sun.
3. Sunflowers have thousands of flowers within the flower.

The sunflower resembles a big daisy with yellow petals and a striking center. The center of the sunflower, however, is actually a garden within the flower. The centers are actually the flowers of a sunflower — thousands of tiny flowers that go to seed after pollination. The birds and the bees love these tiny blossoms that make up the center of the sunflower.
4. Sunflowers grow fast.

Sunflowers grow remarkably fast and tall. They can grow an average of 8 to 12 feet tall within six months. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest sunflower on record grew to a height of 30 feet and 1 inch in Germany. That’s a mighty tall flower!
5. Sunflowers are native to the Americas.

Evidence suggests that Native American tribes cultivated sunflowers as a crop as early as 1500 BC. These early Americans ground the seeds into flour for cooking. Sunflower seeds are rich in nutrients and vitamins A, B, C and E. Native Americans also used the sunflower to make a purple dye for textiles and body painting. Sunflowers were exported to other countries as early as the 16th century.

5 Facts About the Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of my favorite places in Texas. The expansive spaces, distant silhouetted hills, distinctive desert flora, deep in the heart of Texas kind of skies, and mesmerizing chiaroscuro splashed across the faces of desert mesas all work together to create an iconic Texas region. Here are five interesting facts about this distinctively beautiful part of the Lone Star State.
chihuahuan-desert-map1. The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America.

The Chihuahuan Desert extends far beyond our own borders. The desert spans the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico and extends north into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona — a region bigger than the state of California.
chihuahuan-view2. The Chihuahuan Desert is a rain shadow desert.

A rain shadow is a dry region of land on the side of a mountain range that is protected from the prevailing winds and rainy weather. The Chihuahuan Desert is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range on the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range on the east. These mountain ranges form parentheses around the Chihuahuan Desert, blocking most of the moisture from the Pacific and from the Gulf of Mexico.
Chihuahuan Shrubs3. The Chihuahuan Desert is a shrub desert.

According to conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (aka World Wildlife Fund), the Chihuahuan Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world. In the mid-19th century, the grass in the northern Chihuahuan Desert grew as high as the belly of a horse. However, overgrazing led to the decline of native grasses thus allowing the invasion of shrubs like yuccas and agaves, ocotillo, creosote bushes, mormon tea, and many others.
Chihuahuan Panoramic4. The Chihuahuan Desert is home to several mountain ranges.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Texas is home to the Franklin Mountains, Chisos Mountains, Davis Mountains, and Guadalupe Mountains. The seven highest peaks in Texas that rise to more than 8,000-feet are found in the Guadalupe Mountains and the Davis Mountains. These higher altitudes boast both beautiful coniferous trees as well as magnificent vistas of the Lone Star landscape.
waterhole-trail5. There is water in the Chihuahuan Desert.

While there is little rainfall in the Chihuahuan Desert, the region is not entirely without sources of water. The Rio Grande River bisects the Chihuahuan Desert and forms the natural border between Texas and Mexico. There are also streams, arroyos, puddles formed during summer rains, and some aquifers. These help sustain both plant and animal life in this harsh desert environment.

5 Facts About Walking Stick Cholla

I love the mesmerizing beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Lone Star State. This is iconic cowboy country that easily conjures up images of the old west. The more I wander through this region, the more I want to learn about the distinctive plants that give the vistas a beauty all their own. On a recent visit to the Guadalupe Mountains, I became acquainted with the walking stick cholla — an easy to identify member of the cactus family. Here are five interesting facts about this really cool-looking plant.

1. Walking Stick Cholla has some really cool aliases.


Most plants that grow in the Chihuahua Desert are known by more than one name. The walking stick cholla (pronounced cho-ya) certainly has its fair share of Native American and Spanish names, many inspired by the features of the plant. The cholla is also known as cane cholla, tree cholla (because it resembles a small tree), tree cactus, candelabrum cactus, devil’s rope, coyote prickly pear, tuna quell, and velas (candles) de coyote.
Cholla Cactus A2. People either love or hate the walking stick cholla.

In its native desert environment, the cholla is regarded by some as a weedy and troublesome pest. This hardy cacti can quickly reproduce. Fallen joints can easily form roots and produce new plants that spread and take over rangelands. However, to those who love xeric landscapes, cholla is regarded as a beautiful sculptural addition to a low-maintenance garden.

Cholla Fruit3. The walking stick cholla is a source of food.

The walking stick cholla produces a distinctive yellow fruit that is often mistaken for flowers. This fruit lasts throughout the winter months and is a source of nutrition for wild birds, pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, and deer. The calcium-rich fruit of some species is edible either raw or boiled and is a good source of fiber. The cholla fruit is also used in dye production.

4. The walking stick cholla has spines and blossoms.

As with all cacti, beware of the thorny spines that grow around the perimeter of the candelabra-like branches of the walking stick cholla. The vicious barbed spines have earned it the nickname devil’s rope and are tough enough to penetrate leather gloves. So, handle with care. In contrast to its spines, the cholla produces purple or magenta flowers that add to the beauty of the desert landscape.
dried-cholla5. Dead walking stick cholla stems have a beauty all their own.

Dried cholla wood is a good source of firewood. When dead stems decay, they reveal a hollow wooden tube with a beautiful pattern of slits. These dried cylindrical branches are sometimes used as walking sticks or canes or to make picture frames, tool handles, and other curio-like items.

5 Facts About Alligator Juniper

The alligator juniper is one of my favorite trees. I first encountered this member of the juniper family while hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s one of those trees that is hard to miss once you identify and get to know its distinctive characteristics. Here are five facts about the alligator juniper tree.
james-at-mckittrick-alligator-juniper1. The alligator juniper is named for its most distinctive characteristic — its bark.

The easiest way to identify the alligator juniper is by its distinctive bark. Look for rough square-plated bark that resembles the skin of an alligator. The thick bark grows in a cracked or checkered and furrowed pattern that sets it apart from other trees. The leaves of the alligator juniper are a deep green to blue-green in appearance.
Aliigator Juniper GMNP2. The alligator juniper is a tree as tough as its name.

The Guadalupe Mountains is a perfect place for alligator juniper. The tree prefers dry hillsides at moderate elevations like those found in the Trans-Pecos region of the state. The tree grows in the company of piñons, ponderosas, oaks, and other junipers. Alligator juniper has a high tolerance for heat and a low requirement for water. This evergreen tree thrives in either alkaline limestone or slightly acidic igneous soil.
alligator-juniper-mature-trunk3. The alligator juniper is in no hurry.

According to the science of  dendrochronology or the study of growth rings in trees, alligator juniper trees grow at a slow rate. Research has shown that young trees grow in diameter at a rate of 0.6 inches per decade — that’s pretty slow! The growth rate slows to 0.4 inches after the tree reaches 170 years of age. Alligator juniper trees have been known to live as long as 500 years. That’s pretty amazing!
alligator-juniper-trunks4. The alligator juniper is a berry producer.

The female tree produces edible berries that can be consumed raw or steamed. Native Americans used the strongly scented berries to flavor teas and incense and even added the berries to cornbread and sausages. Some Indians dried the berries for winter use or ground them into a mush and then formed them into cakes. In addition, they used the resin of the tree as chewing gum.
Alligator Juniper Omar Hike5. The alligator juniper is a favorite of wildlife.

The alligator juniper attracts a variety of wildlife. Wild turkeys and deer especially enjoy juniper berries. Various bird species such as sparrows, Mexican jays, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds breed among junipers. So, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife when you are out hiking among alligator juniper.