Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bad Woman, "Mala Mujer"

She’s the daughter of the devil himself and she’s an angel in white—if I may paraphrase a famous song.  It all depends, of course, on how you treat her and perhaps more importantly who you are.  If you are a butterfly or a bee then mala mujer’s brilliant white flowers offers enticing nectar.  If you are a morning dove or a Rio Grande turkey the seeds make for a tasty treat.  But woe to the careless human who might happen by and make contact with its spiny hairs for there will be instant pain that lasts for days.

Known scientifically as Cnidoscolus texanus, Mala Mujer (also called Bull Nettle or Texas Bull Nettle) is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family better known as the “spurges.”  It’s a large family consisting of 2,008 species worldwide occurring mostly in tropical and subtropical regions but also in temperate climates.  The well-known Tung Oil comes from a member of this family.  Most Euphorbias have large tubers.  Mala mujer’s tuber is about the size of a grapefruit and usually found from 10-12 inches subsurface and if all you do is clip the plant at ground level you can expect to have the plant reemerge within a few days.

A friend told me that his brother ventured into the ranch country for a visit.  More acclimated to the city he showed up wearing Bermuda style shorts.  Now this will be worthy of a forthcoming post on what to wear in this land of cactus, thorny shrubs and mala mujer, but anyway my friend’s brother brushed up against a mala mujer.  The old boy had an almost instant and violent reaction and ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.  Yes, it can get that bad.  When I was a boy visiting my dad’s ranch (El Cuervo, The Crow) in southern Tamaulipas, Mexico I accidently touched a mala mujer.  It felt like I’d been bitten by dozens of red ants.  The pain was intense and there were small welts at every point that the hairs had pierced my skin.  It took about a month before the stinging finally subsided.

A healthy rain last February brought out the wildflowers and mala mujer has bloomed in abundance.  But it doesn’t seem to bother my dogs.  In fact the males, Dingo and Oy, have to mark every bush they pass.  I wince every time I see them lift their hind legs over a mala mujer. 

A recently published book on the native plants of South Texas claims that mala mujer occurs only in sandy regions.  That’s not entirely accurate.  El Cuervo, my dad’s ranch in Mexico, was a land of limestone hills and gravely ridges with no sand in sight.  And before the brush was cleared off most of Starr and Zapata Counties in deep South Texas mala mujer was found amidst the limestone sediments and gravely ridges and atop the small hills that dot parts of those two counties.

The trail we take has scores of mala mujer.  Note the large green shrubs with ultra-white flowers above.  I’d hate to walk that path at night.  But traveling this land on foot requires extra vigilance.  Aside from mala mujer there is another bad guy that has arrived in abundance this year.  Yesterday, one of my dogs almost got “stung” by this monster.  I refrain from taking action when I encounter these creepy crawlers but in this case my dog was within inches of getting bit.

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