I recently realized something. I have until recently avoided photographing a worthy subject just because it is common. It is the lowly beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family. It grows across the interior western United States, touching the Pacific Coast in southern California. It took quite awhile for me to come around on this rather unspectacular cactus. But now I am taking the time to notice its subtle charm.
You see, I’ve noticed that this plant and I have some things in common. It is on the surface unpleasant when you first glance its way, having a heavily creased face and a generally sour appearance. It’s also worth avoiding at certain times, such as early mornings before it’s had a cup of coffee. But it cannot completely conceal a certain rough charm, when the light is right. And its interior is pulpy and soft, in stark contrast to the face it shows to the general public.
More than once I’ve squatted down to look at something on the desert floor, and had my bottom stuck with the painful spines of a small prickly pear I hadn’t even noticed. I’ve also been annoyed when huge prickly pears blocked my way, forcing me to detour. In many drier areas of the American West, beaver tail is ubiquitous, the most common spiny succulent growing.
The plant can take on amazing colors, particularly just after flowering, or when it’s stressed and the chlorophyll drains out of its body. When a plant loses its green chlorophyll, other pigments (such as anthocyanins) impart vibrant purples, pinks, reds and other shades. In fact, this is precisely what happens when a leaf goes from green to red or yellow in autumn.
Prickly pears are wrinkly and spiny, and the beaver tail is no exception. The spines keep most animals from eating it (for the moisture it contains inside) and the wrinkles are an adaptation that lessens the drying effect of desert winds. These features give it an interesting look when the light is right. Like other photographers, I mostly have ignored the prickly pear. That is until it blooms.
In the deserts of the southwestern U.S.A., prickly pear blooms in late March or April – springtime. The amount of winter rainfall and other factors influence how showy the blooms are, but the size and color (usually pinkish) of the flowers never disappoints anyone. It is only recently that I’ve begun to really see how beautiful it can be at other times of the year.
So here’s to our common beaver tail cactus. I will never take it for granted again.