Keeping to the straight and narrow
In most cases the pads of the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii, are roughly oval or elliptical, but it seems that in 1906 botanists were made aware of a variety of the species near San Antonio whose pads are long and relatively narrow. This being Texas, the shape of the pads reminded people of a cow’s tongue, which is why the variety is now classified as Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis, where that last word means ‘having the form of a tongue.’
Because of its unusual shape, this variety has since been grown in other parts of Texas and even other states. The Arizona Wild Flowers website, which includes lots of information about the cow’s tongue cactus, notes with some sarcasm that still another name for this variety, taking into account its spines as well as the shape of the pads, is “lawyers tongue” [to which you may or may not add your assent, but to which I'd certainly add an apostrophe].
It was on August 24, 2011, when I was out looking for early occurrences of snow-on-the-prairie near the Austin-Pflugerville boundary line, that I found the specimen shown here, with its one dark red tuna peeking out at the upper right. In order to get this view I had to make my way gingerly through a stand of poison ivy, then crouch down carefully and aim upward to frame the cactus against that morning’s clear blue sky. That’s typical of the risks we run and the contortions we go through for our art—just another day in the life of a nature photographer—but you don’t see any of the hazards in the resulting image.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman