Cacti Cavorting to Celebrate a Lady Bird


Echinocereus triglochidiatus, Cactaceae, claret cup cactus

Wildflowers are a major issue for us during Spring and early Summer. The State of Texas is humongous, with endless miles of roads and it just plain has more space for greenery to grow than you can imagine in your wildest dreams.

Memorial Day 1978 will be forever in my mind as the weekend I fell in love with Texas. We were driving WSW from Fort Worth, the highway disappearing toward a far-off horizon, a huge sky above and shimmering heat painting the distant mountains in fuzzy outlines. It felt as if we were part of an infinite expanse, where we could magically see the rose-quartz crystals in the Chihuahua desert across the Rio Grande, as well as the twinkling stars above during those crystal clear nights. Then, in the Spring, when the earth awakens again after the Winter rains, our Lone-Star’s Mother Nature turns into a landscape designer run amok, decorating all this glorious space with patches, stands, clumps, carpets, blankets and cloaks of blooming glory in layers of undulating color.

One person, in particular, one Texas woman, was responsible to bring blooming joy to travelers, not just here, but throughout the nation. The 1965 ‘Highway Beautification Act’, nicknamed ‘Lady Bird’s Bill’, is only one of the many accomplishments of this shy activist, Claudia (!) Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson. Reading her Wikipedia page is a revelation. This advocate for underprivileged children and cityscape beautification, “where flowers bloom, so does hope”, was also a successful entrepreneur, as well as the first First Lady, who turned her White House office into a modern business operation.

In 1982 Lady Bird founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, a non-profit organization for the preservation and reintroduction of native flora. It has since been renamed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and has become a part of the University of Texas. 2012 is a very special time for the LBJ Wildflower Center, as the whole year is dedicated to activities and events revolving around Lady Bird and her wildflowers. She was born in 1912 and her 100th birth-year is being celebrated with gusto! You’ll find all the specifics in the Center’s website


The day before yesterday I drove to Kerrville. A recently started road construction project on Hwy 83 stretches this journey to nearly one hour and 45 minutes. But it’s a very pretty drive because there are blooming wildflowers everywhere.

Glandularia bipinnatifida, Verbenaceae, prairie verbena
Phlox roemeriana, Polemoniaceae, goldeneye phlox

Lilac Verbena and Phlox complementing the famous Bluebonnets. Together with white Thistle poppies and deep purple Winecups they frame the hard shoulders and pop up at fence lines, a feast for the eye. If a little distracting at times, but we don’t have a whole lot of traffic around here … 

This excursion whetted my appetite for more color, so I ventured out again yesterday. This time on foot, though. Our neighbors to the East, Vicki and Robert, had given me permission to trespass a little, so I hiked to my heart’s content for over two hours on our combined land. The day was fairly overcast and grayish, but that’s not a bad thing when you walk about the countryside in Central Texas. Full sun can fry you pretty fast, even in March. Photo equipment in my periwinkle backpack (to be more visible, in case of getting lost, of course), walking stick in left hand (we are no longer as nimble as we once were), hat, gloves, revolver (feral pigs, snakes) – ready! 

My first stop was an inspection of my favorite little cacti spread near the lip of the ridge leading down to our so-called Mesquite Flat. I’ve been watching these babies grow for six years now. When I first found them, there were only two of them, side by side, the big one maybe 5 cm/2 inches in diameter. Those two delicate pink blossoms in the 2007 picture were bigger than the actual cactus!


The cacti have doubled in size since and a pup is grown between them now. We’ll have to wait another month to see if any blooms will develop this year. Sometimes deer munch the new growth before it has a chance to fully deploy. Next to these three small cacti are several large patches of Claret cups, but they also haven’t quite kick-started reproduction yet.

Climbing down the 100 ft. ridge is a wobbly affair, since the steep, zigzagging path that Barry cleared for us, has become quite overgrown again during our absence from the ranch. But I’ve negotiated it so many time before, with the dogs speed-crashing downhill through the underbrush, searching for hares or armadillos with great dexterity, that my feet find the original deer track on their own. It is a much quieter descent without Vandal & Otto, though. On the way down I noticed this Persimmon, glowing in the dim light.

Diospyros texana, Ebenaceae, chapot or Texas persimmon

At the foot of the ridge, our shortcut ends in a small clearing with a more or less tree in the middle, underneath which grows another patch of claret cup cacti. This one is a little further along and already sports a nice display of buds.

Only one bud has opened yet

Near this prickly arrangement, I find the scattered components of our ‘entrance here’ sign at the edge of the clearing. Years ago, when we first used the path up to the house, we built a cairn of white stones and bleached skeletal parts as a marker for the mouth of the path, which was otherwise hard to distinguish from the rest of the rough and tumble countryside. When you stumble back home on a 40ºC/105ºF afternoon, believe me, every little thing helps!


Nothoscordum bivalve, Liliaceae, crow poison

My perambulation took me gradually across the mesquite flat toward the dry wash that separates our property from our neighbors. The mesquite trees, not surprisingly, were still not quite awake yet. Our neighborhood always seemed to be late in mesquite leafing. But when they do, what fun. The young leaves are a riot of neon-green, trembling in the slightest breeze, very psychedelic. March, even late March, is pretty early, not only for several tree species but for some of the more spectacular wildflowers that often cover huge areas, as well. Texas sage, Indian blankets, Black-eyed Susans and Mexican hats all bloom much later. This is a picture from May 13, 2007, showing Otto romping in a field of sage.

As you can see, there’s a lot more beauty waiting to develop and I shall return with an update. Before I leave you today, though, let’s have one more look at the lower claret cup cactus snuggling underneath that tired old mesquite. When I returned a couple of hours later to climb back up the ridge, I discovered one more bud had opened up, revealing it’s intensely pigmented interior.
Drought Addendum:
During my walk today, I passed by a number of my favorite agarita bushes. I especially like them, as they represent the first sign of Spring. Having grown up in an area of Europe, where Forthysia bushes usually announced springtime, the Agaritas here have become my ‘Texas Forthysias’ with their beautiful clusters of yellow flowers that generate a delicious scent, perfuming the air in wide circles. I’ve collected their bright red berries in the past, but always a little warily, since I read that rattlesnakes like to hide under agarita bushes, lying in wait for birds, eager to collect the fruit. 
Mahonia trifoliolata, Berberidaceae, agarita

This year, though, I saw something, which I believe is drought-related because I had never noticed it before. All the larger Agarita bushes were weighted down by a very plentiful crop of berries that had never ripened. Loads of green to greenish-pink berries had died on the vine. Happily, though, they were interspaced with many new leaves growing in.

3 thoughts on “Cacti Cavorting to Celebrate a Lady Bird

  1. Thanks for the ID on crow poison. I couldn't find it in my TX wildflower book, but it is the same flower I was photographing last week.

    I have a lot of respect for the accomplishments of Lady Bird. I remember how ugly our highways looked before the 1965 Highway Beautification Act she promoted.


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