I look forward to Christmas. Temperatures drop or at least they dropped this year. We had a decent winter which is something we’ve sorely missed over the past decade. For those of you to the north I think I have a bit of good news. A couple of nights ago I was making a set of arrows in my little hobby shop and two flights of Canadian geese flew overhead going north. A sure sign that winter is coming to a close. In Deep South Texas winters are short-lived and over the past decade they have been practically non-existent. Our worldwide chaotic climate has given us some years when temperatures never went below fifty degrees and if they did it lasted for only a few hours. But this year we had a good winter and I am thankful for the respite from the heat. There will be days this coming July, August and September when temps will soar well above the 100 mark and I will think back fondly on this winter. A couple of weeks ago I was in North Texas in twelve-degrees of snow and ice with a wind-chill of zero. It brought back memories of my days in Michigan long ago when I’d hike out over a frozen Lake Michigan and sit on hillocks of ice to enjoy the quiet. By the way, I was told that it’s been a long time since the lake has frozen over. Apparently, this is the first time since the 1980s that at least 75 percent of the lake has been covered in ice.
Already things are returning to normal around here and the cold-fronts are becoming sporadic and not very intense. But all around are vestiges of this past Christmas and when the sun is setting the Brushland lights up with its own glitter. Perhaps the woods is as reluctant as I am to let go of the beautiful Christmas of 2013.
We call the plant pictured above tasajillo (tahs-ah-he-oh) but it is otherwise known as Desert Christmas Cactus. I prefer the name tasajillo because it’s an older name to the region. One of my objections to many plant field manuals is that they fail to include the oldest common names for the area covered. Thus in South Texas most field manuals would be, in my opinion, more instructive and accurate if the authors always sought to name a plant using common names of Native American or Spanish origin before using names that are more recent. Unfortunately, many of our plant field guides lack that feature. Nonetheless, and at least for this article, the name Desert Christmas Cactus is appropriate. In my late afternoon walks I think of this past Christmas every time I see a clump of tasajillo.
I can’t recall the first time I encountered tasajillo but most people become aware of the cactus when they bump into it and receive a painful stab from its spines. Tasajillo spines are particularly nasty in that they are enveloped by a sheath that slips off and remains implanted under the skin. The sheath is quite difficult to remove so the best advice I can give is to always be aware of your surroundings when hiking in the Brushlands or desert regions. Besides, this is a land with many obstacles and tasajillo is but only one of them.
A large rat known locally as the “nopal rat” (because it makes nests within clumps of nopal or prickly pear cactus) places the cylindrical and abundantly spiny stems of the tasajillo cactus at the entrance to its nest. When I wrote the novella The Trail I included a segment where the main character, Jacob, sets out to collect nopal rats within an old corral choked full of prickly pear cactus. Years ago in the mountains of Mexico I was treated to a meal of nopal rats by a group of Indians who lived in a remote mountain region. They told me the rat is a delicacy and, in fact, cooked with chile and beans it was quite good. The rat lives primarily off the succulent nopal pads and is therefore a vegetarian. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes more like pollo.
Desert Christmas Cactus is known scientifically as Cylindropuntia leptocaulis and besides the name tasajillo it also goes by the common name Desert Christmas Cholla. There are other common names in other regions but where I live those are the folk names used to identify the plant. Tasajillo makes an excellent perimeter fence in areas where privacy or protection is needed. I planted a row of tasajillo at the back of a friend’s yard a few years ago because people were graffiting his cedar fence. It is tricky planting tasajillo as you might imagine. Wear gloves, use tongs, and perhaps even chaps. But once the tasajillo takes hold you’ll have a wall of spines growing to about five feet high. Don’t overwater the cactus and be sure it’s in partial shade. Tasajillo grows best in sandy loam and the only problem you might have is vines attempting to use the cactus as a support. Best lay down a heavy layer of mulch or even plastic overlaid with sand on top of each plant. You will, of course, get stabbed in the process but then so will anyone else who ventures close.
Wildlife love tasajillo and I’ve seen everything from quail and Rio Grande turkey to javelina eating the cactus. Various bird species make their nests in tasajillo including roadrunners and mourning doves.