Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus

Last April, I fell in love with a flower.

We were in Big Bend National Park, there to hike Emory Peak for my birthday, when a ranger, talking to David about cacti David wanted to photograph, mentioned Living Rock Cactus.

A flower of the Chihuahuan Desert, Living Rock Cactus doesn’t bloom until October.

It was the name that got me. I think of all rock as living, the long-lived progeny of geology, souvenir of Earth’s formation. But in spite of the fact that some rocks contain the fossils of plants, I’ve never thought of a rock as a flower. Now I imagined some ultimate blending of two life forms, sort of like a marriage.

It turns out this cactus simply masquerades as rock. Virtually unnoticeable flattened, grey-green stems lie on the desert floor, looking like rock in a landscape built of rock and sand. Sometimes the dry stems shrink so much they pull the stem apex below ground level, hiding the plant even more in the desert limestone rubble this plant loves.

While I love rock, I have mixed feelings about cacti. Flamboyantly gorgeous in their blooms, they are vicious if you get too close to them. (This may be a slight over-reaction, but it is how I feel. Walking in regions where cacti grow, one needs to be constantly on guard. Don’t sit here. Don’t grab that. Don’t trip and fall there. Don’t get too close. Watch where you put your foot.) Yet few plants offer blossoms so beguiling, colors so magnificent, as cacti. The spines I so dread are simply a brilliant adaptation of leaves that allows these plants to thrive in the dry world of deserts. Perhaps I’m like those people who don’t want to hike in places where something can eat them. I’m comfortable in those places, but hiking country where plants can stab me is another matter.

Living Rock Cactus has no spines. It chooses to bloom (usually) in late October or early November, a time when most other flowers are closed for the season. So, here is a cactus that looks like a rock, has no spines, and blooms according to its own needs, in its own time. How could anyone not fall in love with such a plant?

In April, we found one plant on the sandy limestone soil of a rise off the Dagger Flats road. Fanning out across the desert backing away from the dirt road, we spent a long time looking for more plants. I have never examined the desert floor so closely, nor have I ever been so unconcerned about all the plants out there to get me – ocotillo, strawberry pitaya, lechuguilla, yucca, prickly pear, cholla, and so many more. The fact that their names feel delicious rolling off the tongue, does not compensate for the way they act. But some sixth sense kept me from walking into any of them. It was as if I could see without looking, beyond my looking for the Living Rock Cactus. Maybe passion does that. Maybe passion protects you so that you can invest all your energy toward your goal.

Returning to Big Bend for a few days in late October specifically to look for Living Rock blooms, we managed a couple of hikes in the Chisos in far clearer, cleaner, cooler air than we’d had in April. Lovely, but our real goal remained Ariocarpus fissuratus. We drove back to the Dagger Flats road, trying to find the plant we’d seen in April. No luck. We expanded our search to areas farther along the road, on both sides of the road. David found a single plant, and that one not in bloom.

We stopped at the Visitor Center to check whether anyone had reported seeing blooms. The ranger on duty told us that, in the course of a training near Camp de Leon off the Old Ore Road, one of their group said he’d "never seen so many Living Rock Cactus in one place." The ranger, who couldn’t have cared less about the plant, was nevertheless impressed by the participant’s excitement.

So we drove out there, up the winding, rutted dirt road that provides access to Camp de Leon (and on, to the quite wonderful short hike to Ernst Tinaja and well beyond that—although in rougher condition—to the Dagger Flats road.) We spent hours in hot sun, canvassing the ridge beyond the camp. David went one direction, I another. I think we expected the ground to be covered by Living Rock Cactus. There was not a single one. I found a small bench someone had made from a flat rock placed on two larger rocks under a tall yucca that offered a bit of shade. It was too appealing not to sit a while. Because I couldn’t think of anything to think about, beyond the absence of Living Rock Cactus, I simply watched the desert. As I watched, nothing changed. No animal walked where I could see it. No insect. There was no wind. No grass moved, no yucca, no lechuguilla, no candelilla. The light did not visibly change. Time did not happen.

We left the next day, stopping for lunch in Terlingua, just outside the west entrance to the park. I love Terlingua. It is the ultimate town at the end of the road. It is (almost) the end of the road, almost the end of Texas before you reach Big Bend and the river and Mexico, an outpost for writers and artists and general misfits. It’s where you go when you’ve been everywhere else, Or nowhere else. In the desert hot, you sit on the veranda of the store and drink something cold. And then, eventually, you write a book. I could live here.

Our lunch at India’s Bakery offered us a last view of the Chisos. The musicians serenading the mountains forever are about two feet tall. It is such a Terlingua touch.

At Alpine, about 45 minutes north of Terlingua, we visited the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & Botanical Gardens, a facility of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. We’d been told they had Living Rock Cactus in their greenhouse. In fact, the greenhouse, with over 200 species of cacti and succulents, possesses one of the largest Chihuahuan Desert cacti collections in the world.

But it was steamy in the greenhouse. What I love about Living Rock Cactus is its place in the desert, in the dry heat and rocky soil that gives it life. I was pleased to see the blossoms (and their variety of colors), but I didn’t want to stay with the plants. The purpose of the greenhouse (and the whole of the botanical garden) is for biodiversity conservation, but I wanted my Living Rock Cactus on different terms.

David, who had bought a few Living Rock Cactus in Tucson on our roundabout route to Big Bend, now purchased a few more at the nursery in Alpine. These, the proprietor told us, are dug up on local ranches by cowboys who notice them when they’re mending fences, then bring them to the nursery to earn a few dollars. What interests me is that because they know the nursery will buy them, the cowboys are not only observant enough to notice them—in all their subtlety-- but are careful digging them up. I like that in a cowboy . . .

We bought a couple of lechuguilla plants as well, because Living Rock Cactus likes growing under the protection of a lechuguilla, but now that we’re home, I’m not sure how we’ll proceed. We live at too high an altitude, and too far north to plant them outside. They’ll have wonderful pots, but, for me, it isn’t the same. I really only want to see them growing in the habitat that is theirs. Nevertheless, several of those we bought bloomed as we drove north. It is those I’ve included in this article. David set them on the limestone soil of a hillside to photograph them. So, I suppose one could say we saw Living Rock Cactus in its preferred habitat.

But I wonder how many late Octobers we’ll travel to Big Bend before we finally see one as it should be seen.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner