Many of us who visit and explore Big Bend National Park are fascinated by those strange and interesting plants of the cactus family. We enjoy searching for them, photographing them, and trying to identify them. But this can be difficult and frustrating for a variety of reasons: some cactus species are uncommon, some are very obscure, and many occur only in remote sections of the park. To add further to our confusion, there is much disagreement among cactus specialists, "cactologists," regarding the classification and naming of many cactuses. Many species are very similar with subtle distinctions apparent only to the practiced eye of an expert. And some cactus species hybridize, so there may be gradations between one species and another. The purpose of this book is to help you, the park visitor who may not be a trained botanist, identify and enjoy the cactuses you might encounter while driving and hiking in Big Bend National Park.
My own fascination with plants began at a very young age. As an "NPS Brat" (both of my parents retired from National Park Service), I grew and matured in an environment where love and appreciation of the natural world didn't have to be learned; it was, simply, natural. My particular interest in the plants of Big Bend National Park flourished during my years as this park's second chief park naturalist. Years later, following my retirement from the NPS Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe, my wife Doris accepted a position teaching children of park employees at San Vicente School, which is located at the park's headquarters at Panther Junction. For the next eight years we explored, studied, photographed, and interpreted the Big Bend country. These experiences reflect our passion for sharing our love of the natural and cultural values of this great outdoor classroom with others, particularly children. These thoughts and feelings inspired us to pursue the publication of this book.
We usually use the common names of plants, but it is important when discussing cactuses to be aware of their scientific names, too. Since scientific nomenclature is more systematic and consistent, it allows us to be more precise and to understand the relationships of the various species of cactus. Scientific names are universal throughout the world. Botanists in Asia or Europe, for example, use the same scientific names as we do in the Americas. In the scientific system, members of a plant family are grouped according to similarity of characters, particularly of the flowers, into a number of genera (singular: genus). Each genus is divided into species. So the scientific name is a binomial, or two-word name, consisting of the name of the genus and the name of the species. Some species are further divided into varieties. Occasionally it will be to our benefit to refer to varieties, but to the greatest extent possible we will try to avoid them.
While discussing nomenclature, let's consider the old question: which is correct, cacti or cactuses? My answer is: it depends on which language you are communicating in. If in Latin, then cacti is definitely correct. However, if you're conversing or writing in American English, as I am doing in this book, then cactuses is perfectly acceptable, and I personally prefer it.
Finally, a word about the preservation of cactuses and other natural resources in Big Bend and other national parks. There are two fundamental reasons why every visitor should not remove or damage plants in the national parks: to do so is both immoral and illegal. National parks are established as preserves where native plants and animals can survive and thrive in their natural habitats. We have no right to deprive them of that opportunity. Also, the resources of national parks belong to all of us-equally! The removal of plants, or any other natural or historical resources, is simply theft: stealing from us and our fellow citizens. Unfortunately, laws are necessary to dissuade some people from committing this sort of theft. Federal regulations prohibiting the theft of these resources from your national parks are strictly enforced. If you should witness other visitors stealing your cactuses from your national park, please report such crime to the nearest ranger station immediately.
Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)
The stems of glory of Texas are solitary, grayish blue-green, and usually egg-shaped. They may reach 8 inches in height and 4 or 5 inches in diameter. The long central spines are flattened and flexible, white and pink-red in color, and get up to 3 inches or more in length.
The spectacular flowers are a brilliant satiny fuschia with deep scarlet throats, often growing to 4 inches in diameter. They bloom from April through June. The fruits are about 1/2 inch long and are green and dry at maturity.
The variety of this species that occurs in Big Bend National Park is T. b. var. schottii, named for Arthur Schott, a geologist who also collected plants for the Emory Survey of the U.S.Mexico Boundary from 1851 to 1853. The glory of Texas is primarily a Mexican species and is not common in Big Bend National Park. It occurs at a few isolated locations in gravelly and clay soils at lower elevations.