Tag Archives: cactus

Horsecrippler Ice Cream Project, Episode Two

(In Episode One, we discussed the horsecrippler cactus, Echinocactus texensis, the easternmost barrel cactus in North America, and its extremely visible fruit. The idea was to see how well horsecrippler cactus fruit juice worked as a flavoring for ice cream, based on earlier experiments. We return to the program, already in progress.)

Because of the uncharted territory of cactus fruit ice cream, the output of the juicing sat in deep freeze until plans could be made for a proper ice cream cranking. As every science fiction movie and novel involving deep freezing will tell you, lots of developments come up while the juice was sleeping. Among other things, researching the preparation of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) fruit noted that gently roasting the fruit in an oven or over a fire brought out the flavor by converting the starches in the fruit into sugars. Experiments with a couple of late-ripening horsecrippler fruit confirmed that while the roasted fruits’ flavor was still awfully subtle, the character changed enough to justify more experiments next spring. Those experiments also gave ideas for prickly pear gelato when the prickly pears ripen in October. Onward.

Since the whole ice cream making process was new, the best option was to work from scratch, figuring that improvements could be made with more experience. With that in mind, I started with a good ice cream base recipe, dropping in the frozen juice during its reduction in order to sweeten it. To minimize the risks of losing the whole batch, everything was done in one-liter batches, in order to get a better feel for the process as it progressed. This turned out to be a wise decision, as the best mix required a lot less whole milk than the base recipe recommended.

Ice Cream Base

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

2/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

6 large egg yolks

Oh, yes, and a recommendation for any recipe using eggs: you may note that most of the recipes recommend reducing your base and then straining it through a sieve. There’s a reason for it, as no matter how well-blended the base may be, the egg yolk can and will congeal along the bottom, essentially making ice cream-flavored scrambled eggs. Those chunks can and will get into the final product, so take it as friendly advice. Another recommendation: some people may think that ice cream-flavored scrambled eggs are a great idea. Those people are perverts. For them, I’m making a batch of venison sorbet, and I’ll gleefully scream “HAPPY NOW?” while they’re eating a big bowl each.

Working on the second batch, it’s easy to see both how distinctively brilliantly colored the juice is, and how well the color spreads through the ice cream. Considering how pastel strawberry ice cream can be, if nothing else, horsecrippler fruit might make a good natural coloration for frozen confections of all sorts. Again, experimentation: seeing if the juice can be dried is a possibility for the future, but that depends both upon availability and timing. It’s not as if anyone is going to be growing fields of horsecripplers for food colorings any time soon.

And now it’s time to put everything in the ice cream maker. Normally, the final mix goes into the refrigerator and chills overnight before going into the ice cream maker. Because of day job commitments and general exhaustion, I cheated and gave the mix a good bath in dry ice while the machine was turning. That cut down on the time spent in the maker, improved the consistency by producing lots of tiny ice crystals instead of large ones that affect the palatability, and made lots of fog on the garage floor. When trying something this new, always go for the unquantifiables to make things fun. Just be glad I didn’t have access to a significant quantity of liquid nitrogen: there’s an Air Liquide facility just south of the gallery, though, and I may have to ask about bulk rates…

WE HAVE ICE CREAM. I REPEAT; WE HAVE ICE CREAM.

Now to finish up. We may have ice cream, but it’s still at about the consistency of soft-serve, so it needs firming up. Into the freezer it goes, waiting for someone to be one of the first individuals on the planet to try horsecrippler cactus ice cream. And so it goes.

As for what’s going to happen to it? Well, that depends. The plan is to serve up samples to everyone coming out for this month’s Triffid Ranch third anniversary open house on August 18, so you can try for yourself. Alternately, I was serious about the prickly pear gelato: cactus isn’t common in Dallas proper, but I know of several bushes in neglected areas  throughout the city, and going on a fruit-collecting expedition in October is a good excuse for a trip to either Glen Rose or Mineral Wells. I was also serious about the liquid nitrogen, too: how many art galleries in the Dallas area can brag about having ice cream tastings, too?

A single perfect moment of beauty

Mystery cactus

And before anyone asks, no, I have no idea how well these flowers fluoresce under ultraviolet. That’s because not only will this cactus only open its blooms during the day, but it only opens them in full direct sunlight. Move it to a shady spot to test UV fluorescence, and the blooms close up tight within moments. One day, though.

Killing Rumors, One Experiment At A Time

In an essay reprinted in the collection Bully For Brontosaurus, the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould brought up the seeming anomaly of referring to the early “dawn horse” Eohippus (known today as Hyracotherium) as being the size of a fox terrier, and how this strange analogy kept perpetuating through science textbooks and popular science writing for nearly a century. The question wasn’t so much wondering why this was repeated over and over by lazy writers, but wondering “why an obscure dog breed like a fox terrier, and not an animal commonly encountered by average people, such as a cat?” (The story of this analogy is a fascinating look into palaeontology in the late Nineteenth Century, and this alone is worth the cost of the book’s purchase. Don’t just stop there, though: the title essay still makes an excellent point twenty years after its publication. But I digress.)

This sort of repetition without verification runs through many natural history references, particularly any such references involving Texas natural history. By way of example, while engaging in further research into the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis, most of its common names make sense. “Horsecrippler” is both self-explanatory and extremely accurate, and “Devil’s footstool” works as well. However, it was also referred to as “candy cactus” in many areas of its range, and popular guides declared with authority that “early settlers used to make candy from the fruit.”

Now, speaking from experience, there is such a thing as cactus candy. Specifically, it’s candied prickly pear fruit or sometimes young prickly pear pads. In fact, entrepreneurs make a whole list of interesting food items from Opuntia cactus fruit. These can range from toasted halved fruit, commonly called “tuna” through the state, to jellies, syrups, and even margaritas. Considering the voluminous output of Opuntia fruit when it goes ripe in October, that’s not surprising. The problem comes when well-meaning amateurs hear about prickly pear jelly, figure “I can do this, too,” and fire up the old double boiler to make a batch with a bushel basket of fresh fruit. That’s when they discover a very valuable lesson: there’s not that much in the way of flavor in cactus fruit.

Now don’t get me wrong. Based on what few nutritional estimates are available, cactus fruit is good for you. The problem is that it’s generally not intended for us mammals. Much like chile peppers, the main vector for cactus seeds is the gut of any number of birds, all of which spot the bright colors on ripe fruit and rush down to take advantage of the bounty. Since birds are rather lacking in taste buds, their interest in the fruit comes from the color, so natural selection didn’t swing on flavors. Today, the only commercially raised cactus fruit come from either Opuntia or the various dragonfruit species (Hylocereus spp.), and even dragonfruit junkies such as myself would never describe them as particularly vibrant in flavor.

But the “candy cactus” appellation kept gnawing at me, so it was time to experiment. Trying a sole ripe fruit was a chore, as it combined a thick rind with tough black seeds with all of the flavor and consistency of freshly washed aquarium gravel. It was just sweet enough, though, that I could see this being used to make candy, if only one collected enough fruit. This spring’s odd weather produced enough fruit, and all of the E. texensis at the Triffid Ranch went mad this year.

Cactus fruit on the plant

As another sign that the cactus needs bird and not mammal sowers of its seed, ripe horsecrippler fruit is both attractive and repellent. The attraction comes from the brilliance of the rind, obviously, but it’s not easy to reach. The shriveled corolla from the bloom is as spiky and irritating as a dried thistle bloom, and a lot stronger. Meanwhile, the fruit itself is covered with tufts of what looks and feels like freshly spun fiberglass, and I imagine that it tastes much the same. I could see, and have seen, crows and bluejays ripping apart the fruit to get at the pulp, but I could see the corolla stopping anything short of the hungriest cow or pig.

Fruit on Davros

As I mentioned, this was a good year for horsecrippler cactus fruit. Even the monstrous cristate cactus we nicknamed “Davros” bore fruit this year. These were kept separate from the rest: most popular reports on cristate cacti note that any seed they produce is nonviable, and this is going to be tested next. Considering what I learned next, it’s understandable that I plan to verify any assumption about this plant with direct observation.

Plucking cactus fruit

Between corolla and micturating hairs, E. texensis fruit isn’t something you want to grab with bare hands, and most cactus-resistant gloves are a bit too clumsy for something as squishy as these. Anyone who works with cactus knows that a pair of standard kitchen tongs belongs in the toolkit, and they came in extremely handy during harvesting. Get a good grip on the corolla of a ripe fruit, wiggle a bit, and it pops free like a bad tooth.

Plucked cactus fruit

A closeup of a plucked fruit shows its various anti-mammal defenses. Those spines and hairs could still be stuck in my hand.

Gathered cactus fruit

Okay, give twenty minutes to denude the horsecripplers, and the bounty shows a basic flaw in the logic of these being used for candy. These cacti are kept in special soil mixes and fertilized on a regular basis, so they produce significantly more fruit than what a typical horsecrippler in the wild grows every spring. In fact, from personal observation, I’ve never noticed more than three fruit on a wild horsecrippler at any one time. Considering that horsecripplers spread out over a large range, anyone wanting to collect these for candy would have to walk a lot to get enough to make it worth the time. Either the candy finally produced was the greatest taste sensation ever produced in this state, the diet of a typical West Texas settler was so insanely monotonous that horsecrippler fruit was a godsend from a steady menu of chicken-fried steak and pinto beans, or…or the nickname “candy cactus” came from the fruit’s vague resemblance to wrapped candies and not from the flavor after all. Well, time to test.

Washed cactus fruit

After chilling the fruit in the refrigerator overnight, it’s time to see what we can get out of them. Before anything else, washing is vital, as it washes away those irritant hairs along with bird crap, bug crap, dust, dirt, air pollution, and the occasional dead stinkbug hiding within the fruit. Rinse it a bit, and it’s time for processing.

Snipping cactus corollas

As mentioned before, the seeds in horsecrippler fruit have all of the appeal and attractiveness of fresh aquarium gravel, and they’re about as easy on the teeth. I’ll bet that they’re chock full of vitamins A and D from oils therein, but without a metate, said oils are a bit hard to access. Therefore, this experiment involved pureeing the fruit, straining out the seeds, and working from there. Since the corollas are about as delectable as the seeds, each and every one needed to be snipped off with a pair of kitchen shears beforehand. That’s another reason why washing the fruit beforehand helps out, as it softens the spines and edges on the corollas, making this activity a lot less onerous than it could be.

Smoothie machine

For the actual pureeing, I had several options, but the best involved an old smoothie maker I purchased a decade back. Not only did it have blades specifically designed for liquefying fruit of all sorts, but it had a convenient stirring rod to help get chunks of fruit into the path of the blades. Even better, it also had a spigot for draining off the juice if the pulp and seeds floated to the top.

Cactus fruit in blender

Drop in the fruit, close and lock the cover, turn it on, and we get…

The smoothie maker aftermath

…glop too thick to pour through the spigot. However, it has a great color, suggesting a high nutritional content, and it can be poured into a strainer.

Pureed cactus fruit

Well, so much for the idea of the seeds floating to the top. The whole mix went into a fine strainer to draw off the juice, with the hope that it might produce enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Cactus juice

Yeah. Sure. After draining overnight, all that effort produced maybe a cup of juice, with said juice being about as appetizing as the seeds. This might improve when heated to break down starches into sugars, but anyone expecting an insane flavor sensation might want to keep walking, if you know what I mean.

Drained cactus pomace

There’s also the pomace, which isn’t enough to put to some particularly innovative use as with grape pomace left over from wine production. However, the tangling with the smoothie maker blades probably scarified the seeds to where they’re more likely to germinate, so they’re getting dried and then spread in the original ranchland where they originated. The experiment was a failure, but at least it might help perpetuate this fascinating cactus in the wild.

Well, the initial experiment was a failure, but there’s still that juice to work with. If nothing else, it’s going into a batch of homemade ice cream, and a select group just might be the only humans ever to state, with photographic proof, that they’ve eaten horsecrippler cactus ice cream. That sound you hear comes from the heads of a whole herd of obsessive foodies, all popping like ripe zits.

Tales From The Ranch

Meanwhile, back at “Tales From The Ranch,” one of the more relaxing locales at my in-laws’ ranch is The Quarry. This actually was a limestone quarry in the 1970s, because of its extensive deposit of dense and strong Pennsylvanian limestone. Now, it alternates between being a cattle tank and an appreciated watersource for the indigenous fauna. Coyotes, rabbits, deer, the occasional pronghorn antelope, and the even more occasional bobcat or mountain lion…you won’t see them around it, but you’ll definitely find their tracks and their scat.

The Ranch Quarry

Quarry Wall 1

Quarry Wall 2

Quarry Wall 3

Quarry Wall 4

Quarry Wall 5

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s up with all that cactus so close to the water?” Welcome to the never-ending dichotomy that is Texas.

Introducing Hylocereus costaricensis

In what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in recorded Texas history, there’s a few bits of good news. Namely, it’s a remarkably good season for dragonfruit cactus.

Hylocereus costaricensis

The genus Hylocereus is one of the two genera of true cactus raised commercially for food: the other being the prickly pear Opuntia. In the US, two varieties generally appear for sale in Asian markets and high-end grocery stores, and both are sold under the common name “dragonfruit”. It’s not hard to see why, between the color and the scales, as shown below.

Dragonfruit

The difference between the two is really only obvious when you cut one open. H. undatus has white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. H. costaricensis, though, is a brilliant red-purple, about the color of fresh pomegranate juice, with the same black seeds. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which variety is which solely based on the rind, but it really doesn’t matter as far as the flavor is concerned. First-time dragonfruit eaters are often disappointed at the seeming lack of flavor in the ripe fruit, as it’s really subtle, but the crunchy consistency makes up for it. (I personally prefer it well-chilled, quartered, and served with the rind on the back of each segment, but it’s also a great addition to fruit salad or smoothies, and dragonfruit jam is apparently quite popular in England. I’ve heard of recipes that involve broiling dragonfruit like grapefruit, but dragonfruit doesn’t last long enough around the house for this to be an option.)

Sliced dragonfruit

With one big caveat, both commercially available varieties of Hylocereus are very easy to raise in propagation. They can be grown from seed taken from ripe fruit: my best results have come from mashing a chunk of the fruit gently with the flat of a knife, smearing the pulp atop standard potting compost, and keeping the compost moist but not wet. The only real problem with this method is that the resultant seedlings are very slow-growing, and they tend to be rather susceptible to large changes in environmental conditions. A much more dependable method of propagation involves cuttings, and considering how often branches break off, simply putting the cutting atop a pot full of compost can produce a full-sized plant within a year instead of three to four for seedlings. Most branches grow aerial roots whenever the ambient humidity is above 50 percent, so just sink those into the compost and watch the plant take over.

As a potted plant, H. costaricensis makes a spectacular hanging basket. In the wild, Hylocereus climbs trees with the help of those aerial roots clinging to bark, but it also apparently sprouts in the crooks of large trees or rocks and hangs downward. Since it’s a tropical cactus, Hylocereus cannot handle sustained freezes, and should be brought into shelter when the outdoor temperatures drop below 40 degrees F (4.44 degrees C). Since it adapts very well to both standard pots and hanging pots, though, this generally isn’t a problem. The typical cactus spines are both small and fragile in Hylocereus, and don’t appear to set off any sort of allergic reaction, but be cautious all the same. Other than giving it full sun to light shade whenever possible, these cactus are very low-maintenance: I water whenever dry, and fertilize with bat guano about once per month.

Hylocereus costaricensis in hanging basket

Remember the caveat mentioned before about dragonfruit propagation? If you’re planning to grow any Hylocereus, don’t expect the cactus to start blooming until it gets big. Most growers report that the individual plants won’t bloom until they weigh at least 10 pounds (4.53 kilograms), and some varieties may not bloom until the total weight of the plant is over 20 pounds (9.07 kilograms). The good news is that unlike most other cactus, Hylocereus is self-fertile, with some plants producing fruit without being pollinated at all. They’re also apparently capable of producing viable hybrids within the genus, leading to quite the entertaining assortment of cultivar names, ranging from “David Bowie” to “Physical Graffiti”. In addition, the night-blooming flowers are huge, resembling giant white versions of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) and very sweet-smelling.

The only complaint I have about raising Hylocereus is minor. Namely, growing them is addictive. Expect to see several plants at next month’s FenCon show, and we can all sing Ministry’s “Just One Fix” together.

Introducing Echinocactus texensis

Thanks to popular impressions spread worldwide, visitors to Dallas are always surprised at the lack of cactus in the area. Aside from particularly lucky and rare clumps of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) in areas with exceptional drainage, this isn’t a particularly friendly area for succulents other than parslane and moss roses. If you see a stand of cactus in someone’s front yard in the Dallas area, that’s because the owners spent an inordinate amount of time and effort in setting up the right bed with the right amount of drainage. This is a little less necessary in Fort Worth, but you’re still looking at local soils that are far too clayey and local rainfalls a little too high for them to grow just anywhere.

If you want to see cactus in the wild in Texas, you’ll have to go west. Well west of Fort Worth, at least. You can also head south toward Austin and San Antonio, but the really interesting cactus kin the state are found in Big Bend National Park. Don’t forget other parts of the state, because you may be delightfully surprised by what’s out there, when, and why.

For instance, my parents-in-law own a ranch in West Texas, fairly close to the town of Mineral Wells. As the picture below demonstrates, it’s rather scrubby chaparall. The area gets a surprising amount of rain through the year, as most of the big storms that hit Dallas and Fort Worth start in this general area, but the limestone beds that make up half of the local strata are sufficiently fractured that water just drains through. The sandstone that makes up the other half is extremely porous, so between the two, rainfall runs straight down to the Brazos River. Enough, just enough, is trapped in local clay pans that many trees and other plants can survive the brutal summers. It’s just enough to support mesquite, Western cedar, and scrub grasses.

A quick shot of the ranch

The grasses in question can get fairly high, and as such do a very good job of concealing one of the easternmost species of barrel cactus in the US. In fact, sometimes that grass does too good a job.


This is Echinocactus texensis, native range from West Texas into eastern Arizona and well south into Chihuahua, Mexico, which goes by common names such as “pincushion cactus” and “Devil’s footstool”. Its most common name, though, is “horsecrippler,” for two reasons. The first is because of this cactus’s tendency to grow best in flat, clayey plains that produce prime horse forage. The other involves those spines. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice that each rosette, or areola, of spines consists of six small spines and one large downward-pointing spine. In lush times, the cactus’s flesh is full of water, and the big defensive spines point downward to protect it from being rooted up by cattle or pigs. When things start drying out in the summer, though, the cactus’s body starts to collapse like a deflating soccer ball. When it does, those big spines gradually point upward. Speaking from personal experience, they’re sharp and strong enough to punch through the sole of a standard-issue Army boot and through a motorcycle tire, and they can very easily leave an inattentive horse temporarily or permanently lame.

I’ll get to the fruit in a minute, but they illustrate why these can be a danger to people and pets at times. These fruit generally ripen around the end of May, and that’s about the only way the cactus can be spotted easily in the wild. The rest of the year, they grow as far down in the soil as they can, and in high enough grass, they’re nearly impossible to see until you’re right on top of them.

The other time E. texensis is easily spotted is when it blooms in early spring. The flowers open at sunrise, and stay open until dusk. Both the cactus and its blooms are highly UV-reflective, so the blooms attract very enthusiastic bees, wasps, ants, and other pollinators. Like all cactus, horsecripplers are not self-fertile, so they require at least one other blooming horsecrippler in the vicinity in order to set fruit.

Now, back to that fruit. Another common name for this cactus throughout its range is “candy cactus,” because its fruit was gathered by early settlers, juiced, and boiled down to make candy and syrup. Those who have never had prickly pear or dragonfruit will be disappointed with the first taste of fresh horsecrippler fruit, as it has an extremely delicate and subtle flavor. The remnants of the bloom are also extremely spiky, so it takes some finesse to remove the fruit when ripe. In the wild, the fruit grow to about the size of a gumball, but captive plants can produce ones the size of a ping-pong ball without hesitation. Seeing as how the black seeds are both large and numerous, the best way to enjoy the fruit is to swallow the pulp, seeds and all. (Trying to remove the seeds without a juicer is folly, and they really don’t hurt you.) This seems to work very well for the coyotes, pigs, and skunks that readily devour the fruit, and these animals spread seeds in their feces to new locations.

In captive culture, the only disappointment with E. texensis is its extremely slow growth rate. Based on observations on horsecripplers growing on gravel berms and other manmade areas, most seem to need at least 30 to 40 years before they reach a moderate size, and large specimens may be well over 100 to 200 years old. Considering that they can survive ground soil temperatures well in excess of 160 degrees F (71 C), slow growth is a fair trade. Their only real threat comes from the occasional deep freezes that hit Texas, such as the bad freeze we had last February. Horsecripplers can handle subfreezing temperatures for a few days, but any situation where they would be exposed to temperatures below 20 degrees F (-7 C) for more than a day requires that they be brought indoors for shelter.

As for captive growing requirements, horsecripplers aren’t particular about soil mix (standard potting mixes work well, and perlite or Growstones in the bottom is highly recommended), but they HAVE to have suitable drainage. Terracotta pots or plastic pots work well, so long as these don’t have bottom trays that allow the pot to collect water. In the wild, the clay is so thick and tough that horsecripplers usually only put out a small taproot about the size of a carrot. In captivity, they rapidly put out a thick and extensive root clump, which sometimes adhere to the inside of terracotta pots. Seeing as how they really need to be repotted only once every few years, though, that’s a minor issue. Fertilizing is, likewise, quite easy, and I use bat guano once per month, one cup per twenty gallons (70.7 liters) of water, during the growing season.

Other than that, the only absolute requirement for happy propagation of E. texensis is sun. Lots of sun. Lots of burning, blinding, peel-the-skin-off-the-backs-of-your-eyeballs sun. For this reason, when people tell me that they can’t keep plants alive because they live in apartments with those horrible windswept balconies, I tell them “Let me introduce you to my friend over here.”

A lot of this knowledge was learned with literal bloodshed, as a whole line of horsecripplers from the ranch are now Kareds. While my father-in-law is very protective of the critters on the ranch both fauna and flora, he acknowledged that ones growing near the residential area on the ranch were potentially dangerous to children and pets. Rather than simply stripping them out, I volunteered to move and propagate them, and they’ve turned out to be surprisingly easy and friendly to keep in captivity. In fact, the only reason why they don’t show up more often in propagation is due to their incredibly slow growth. Just wear gloves when repotting, and they may outlive you.

Unbeknownst to us, the ranch had one last surprise in my cactus rescue. At the edge of a gully was a particularly odd fellow, looking as if it was diseased or tumorous. It was literally at the edge of the gully, where one good winter or spring storm would wash it into the gully and to its death. Getting it home, it became surprisingly comfortable with captive life, rapidly spreading out its roots and blooming this spring.

Davros the cristate horsecrippler

Ryan Kitko helpfully identified the cactus’s condition. Cristate or crested cactus are relatively common, if nearly impossible to replicate, and this one was a very rare cristate form of E. texensis. Ryan related that the last paper on a cristate form was published in 1936, but I discovered a couple of cactus nurseries that had examples of their own.

In any case, this one had been in that little clearing for years, and possibly centuries, as its growth is even slower than other members of its species. Between its age and its appearance, only one name was appropriate: “Davros“.

This year, Davros the cactus actually bloomed three times, and all of the fruit ripened. Although most cristate cacti can’t produce viable seed, it may be time to see if this is true with this beast.