Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Be Careful How You Hold This Tongue

Cow's Tongue Cactus (Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis)
Cow's Tongue Cactus (Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis)

The best time for you to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust.” 
― Josh Billings, American humorist. 1818-1885

Well, I've got to tell you right now about Cow's Tongue Cactus (Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis). It's practically surreal in appearance. Its stark, long, tapered pads stretch upward and out like they're reaching for something to lick. If you were to feel its stinging lap on your flesh, you'd quickly withdraw. The pads are covered with spines. Some are long and obvious. Others are fine and barely noticeable, but even those can irritate your skin mightily.

So, you might ask yourself, "Self, what good is a plant like that? Why would anyone want it in their garden?" There are several reasons.

The first is for its sculptural appearance. The fleshy texture and bizarre appearance add a very artistic feature to the landscape. It's useful alone as a specimen plant or among others in a desert-theme garden. The bright yellow flowers of spring and ornamental purple fruits of fall lend a decorative touch.

The second is for its drought tolerance. If you reside in an arid part of the country, or just want to reduce your water bill, Cow's Tongue Cactus is for you. It thrives in poor, sandy soil, too.

The third is for its botanical significance. Cow's Tongue Cactus, like other Prickly Pear cacti, is native to the Americas - specifically Texas. Native plant enthusiasts and cacti/succulent collectors should include it among their selections.

Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis also honors history in its name. Linguiformis means "tongue-shaped." The genus, Opuntia, refers to a region in ancient Greece, Opus, where cacti were commonly grown. The species, engelmannii, recognizes George Engelmann. Engelmann (1809-1884) was a German-American botanist who studied native plants of the western frontier. His correspondence with fellow botanist, Ferdinand Lindheimer (1801-1879), is well-known.

As a matter of fact, it's worth mentioning here that this species is sometimes identified as Opuntia lindheimerii var., linguiformis. Lindheimer lived and worked in Texas. His collection of letters to Engelmann, A Life Among the Texas Flora (edited by Minetta Altgelt Goyne), is a classic.

Cow's Tongue Cactus
The fourth reason is for its use as a barrier. This is not one of those hedges you have to prune occasionally to keep up appearances. It manages quite well on its own without becoming unkempt. Believe me, intruders will think twice before trying to trespass. Cow's Tongue Cactus should be in your homeland security arsenal.

The fifth is for its edibility. Yes! You can eat it! The young, fleshy pads can be stripped of their spines, sliced and sauteed. The purple fruits, stripped of their spines, can be cooked to render a delicious, dark burgundy juice for syrups and other desserts.

Cow's Tongue Cactus is easy to propagate. Simply break off a few pads - with gloved hands, of course. Drop them onto a prepared site, and leave them undisturbed to root. A nice little colony will develop within a couple of seasons.

Here are a few tips for growing it.

Bloom Color: Yellow

Bloom Time: Spring

Foliage: Thick, fleshy, tongue-shaped pads

Height/Spread: 4' average height. Plant 6' to 8' apart.

Climate Zones: 8, 9, 10, 11.

Sun Exposure: Full sun

Soil Condition: Well-drained, sandy. Do not over-water. pH 6.1 to 7.8

Features: Sculptural foliage, yellow flowers, purple pear-shaped fruit.

Uses: Xeriscaping, native plant collections, cacti/succulent collections, desert- and Southwestern-themed gardens, edible gardens, barrier hedges.

Have you used Cow's Tongue Cactus (Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis) in your garden? Have you seen it in botanical gardens or plant collections? Tell us about it in the comment section. We'd love to hear from you!

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