More Common Plants of Big Bend
Prosopis glandulosa, or honey mesquite and Prosopis pubescens, screwbean mesquite, are both found in Big Bend National Park. These shrubby trees are armed with straight, stout spines that are solitary or paired, and have deep, drought-defying roots. The fruit is a tough pod where the seeds are partitioned and embedded. The fruits were an important food source for the Native Americans. The developing pods are sweet raw or cooked. The seeds are also edible and could be ground into flour or meal. The meal could be mixed with water to make a lemony drink. The drink was also fermented. The sap or pitch, was used to waterproof baskets, make candy, and produce a black dye. The sap was mixed with mud and plastered on the head. Once dry, it was removed leaving the hair shiny, black, and lice-free. The inner bark and roots were a source of fiber for baskets. The hard wood was an important source of tools and weapons. Today mesquite is used in posts, carvings, tool handles, gunstocks, and for barbecues.
Rose-fruited juniper, Juniperus erythrocarpa, is the shrubby juniper of the park. Typically growing no taller that five feet, the alligator juniper, Juniperus deppeana, has checkered or scaly bark and is taller and more tree-like than other junipers in the area. Drooping juniper, or Juniperus flaccida, is common in Mexico but only found in the U.S. in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Its needles droop causing this small tree to appear like it always needs a drink of water. The bark of all three juniper species provided a source of fiber for sandals, mats, and baskets for early Native Americans. The cones are small and berry-like, and were used in seasoning meats and for beads in necklaces.
Yuccas are members of the lily family and bloom every year if there has been enough rainfall. The four yuccas of Big Bend National Park, Faxon yucca or giant dagger (Yucca faxoniana), beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata), soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) and Spanish dagger or torrey yucca (Yucca treculean), all have trunks that elevate the leaves above the ground. The trunk is often covered with dry, dead leaves. The leaves are long, fibrous, and spine-tipped. The cream-white flowers appear in late spring and produce a fleshy or dry fruit with black seeds. The flowers are pollinated primarily by the yucca moth. Native Americans ate the flower buds, petals, and young stalks. The fruits and seeds were also eaten. The fibrous leaves were used to make cloth, rope, mats, sandals, and baskets. The root provided soap and was used as a laxative.
There are sixteen species of Opuntia in the Trans-Pecos area of Texas. These species tend to hybridize, so it is often difficult to determine which prickly pear is which. There are two general varieties. The chollas that have cylindrical stems and the prickly pears that have flattened stems. The cacti have spines instead of leaves to conserve water and carry out all food production through the stems of the plants. The spines are numerous and can be yellow, brown, pink, red, or black in color depending on the species. The flowers appear in April and are usually yellow (prickly pears) or pink (chollas). Fruits are usually maroon (prickly pears) or yellow (chollas) and some varieties are very juicy and sweet. The Native Americans ate these fruits, called tunas, and today we use them to make jellies and syrups. The young cactus pads or nopals were used as a potherb (like greens) or pickled. Their taste is typically described as a cross between green pepper and okra. The seeds were eaten in soups or ground up for flour. The pads were sometimes split and soaked in water and could be used to bind wounds with the sticky side down. The insides are similar to aloe vera and softened the skin and lessened pain. The bitter juice from the pads could be used as an emergency source of water. In Mexico, fields of prickly pear are grown for a scale insect, the cochineal, which grows on the pads. This insect is used to produce a beautiful natural purple dye.
In terms of geographic distribution and the number of individual plants, the grass family is the most successful flowering plant family in the world! Over 8,000 species exist worldwide, covering one-third of the planet. They are found in the tropics, marshes, forests, tundra, and desert environments. Native Americans harvested over fifty kinds of grass seeds. No one type was considered an important food source, but when combined the seeds had many uses. The seeds could be boiled for a mush, made into bread, ground into flour or meal, and used to thicken gravy. The seeds could be eaten raw, but tasted better dried, roasted, or ground. The leaves of many species were used to make baskets, mats, or flutes. Today two-thirds of the crops cultivated on earth are cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, rye, millet, sugar cane, and hay.
Did You Know?
First Lieutenant William H. C. Whiting, leader of the first topographical survey through Texas in 1849 is credited as being the first to use the name "Big Bend" in reference to the distinctive curve of the Rio Grande. More...