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Bloom of the Century

Last year, after rain had finally returned, Big Bend experienced the most spectacular spring that photographer James H. Evans had ever seen: wide seas of bluebonnets, clusters of red ocotillos, and rare pink yuccas. His stunning images show the desert and mountains alive with color.

By March 2016Comments

Octotillos with the Christmas Mountains in the background.
Photograph by James H. Evans

Photographer James H. Evans moved to Marathon from Austin in 1988 with an idea that he’d try to make himself into the Ansel Adams of the Big Bend. He soon developed the methods he still uses: going into the national park for months at a time, where he’ll set up a home base in his trusty Airstream Bambi and then wander off for days in his truck or on foot. Sometimes he’ll shoot, but just as often he’ll sit and observe. He’ll often spend entire afternoons studying the way rock formations change with the passing sun. He can read at a glance the mood of distant mountains the same way you would your spouse’s at the dinner table. The landscape is dramatic and severe, and Evans says anyone can take a great picture there. But his relationship with the area makes his photos different. There’s a warmth in images of even the most unforgiving cliff face. You can feel his affection for the place.

Last spring, the mountains showed him something new. “There were flowers in places where I’d never seen them before. It was a real buzz, especially in the backcountry, the roads that aren’t traveled much. There were whole fields of bicolor mustards or purple basket flowers. Shooting flowers can be kind of hokey. It’s cliché. I’d never shot a bluebonnet in my life. But I had to document this.”

He started to think of the wildflower crop as the “hundred-year bloom.” The term will sound inflated to botanists and longtime far West Texans who remember other spectacular years, but it fit the romantic pull that Evans felt. “There were patches of color that were miles long. You could smell them. And there were sounds. All the critters were happy. You could hear swarms of bees flying by.”

The bloom was, in fact, rare and special, the by-product of a long-prayed-for correction in Chihuahuan Desert weather patterns. From September 2010 until January 2012, no appreciable rain fell across large portions of the national park; 2011 was the driest year on record. In the middle of that drought, in February 2011, three consecutive days of single-digit temperatures froze yuccas to their roots and reduced thousands of prickly pears to piles of dead pads. Only in 2014 did the area again receive its normal ten inches of annual rain, much of it hitting late in the year. Significantly, that rain came not in violent downpours but moderate, near-weekly showers that stretched through a mild winter and all the way into July. So wildflowers sprang up earlier and more densely than in any year in recent memory. And instead of appearing in ribbons along roadsides, the beneficiaries of rainwater runoff from the pavement, they fanned out like carpet across the desert floor and up mountainsides. Then, thanks to an uncharacteristically cool May and June, they stayed longer.

“Usually the heat takes over in May and the bluebonnets are gone,” said Evans, who likes to sleep outside when he’s in the field. “But I’d wake up on top of my truck and my sleeping bag would be covered with dew—in May. I’ve always spent May and June in the darkroom. It has an air conditioner.”

He stayed in the park until July, and the photos he brought out are stunning. Ocotillo groves so thick they look like large red pools. The Chisos so green they could be on a postcard from Ireland. He did tight shots of greenthreads and grassland paintbrushes, flowers he’d never seen before, and the only stand of pink yuccas he’s ever found in the park. He used a strobe to light the blooms and a slightly slower shutter speed to pick up the sky behind them. “I think of landscapes as portraits. I tried to include the weather when I could. I wanted to show it as beautiful as it was. I was worried that this would never happen again.”

Yucca near Persimmon Gap, in Big Bend National Park.
Yucca near Persimmon Gap, in Big Bend National Park.

Photograph by James H. Evans

Abundant growth near the rock at Big Hill, in Lajitas.
Abundant growth near the rock at Big Hill, in Lajitas.

Photograph by James H. Evans

The Chisos Mountains, photographed from Old Ore Road.
The Chisos Mountains, photographed from Old Ore Road.

Photograph by James H. Evans

A thunderstorm rolls through Marathon on June 14, 2015.
A thunderstorm rolls through Marathon on June 14, 2015.

Photograph by James H. Evans

Antelope horns with bluebonnets.
Antelope horns with bluebonnets.

Photograph by James H. Evans

A basket flower.
A basket flower.

Photograph by James H. Evans

One of only two grassland paintbrush plants Evans saw in the park.
One of only two grassland paintbrush plants Evans saw in the park.

Photograph by James H. Evans

Greenthread.
Greenthread.

Photograph by James H. Evans

Ocotillos on Old Ore Road.
Ocotillos on Old Ore Road.

Photograph by James H. Evans

Prickly pear.
Prickly pear.

Photograph by James H. Evans

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  • wessexmom

    Beautiful! Thanks!

  • longing for hill country

    Gorgeous, a book?

  • PopDaOldMan

    It’s WRONG !! The cactus in the Big Bend area and other parts of that area are Purple not Green! They have Purple colored “leaves” and the Spines are BLACK ! Funny thing, if you dig them up and bring them back home, to Austin/Bee Caves and re-plant the cactus, over the course of 3-5 years they will turn Green, like the Cactus in the Central Texas area.
    Why, you ask? It’s all about the water. Out in that part of Texas, the water is very, very Alkaline !

    • Don Alexander

      Some of the prickly pear is purple but no where near all of it is. There are several species of non-purple PP (opuntia) in BiBe. I have some purple PP that is several generations of clones removed from the original pad I harvested near Ft Stockton. Some remain purple and others are more green. Can’t say why but their soil and water is pretty much alkaline also.

      • PopDaOldMan

        Ft. Stockton is too far north. Maybe where I saw nothing but the purple cactus was on the 96 Ranch further west then the Big Bend.
        I’ve never seen a pic of that ranch area in the TX Monthly, even though it has an old rail road that ran thru it, several Buffalo Solders campsites, old Chinese workers camps. There is even the old tunnel that the county road goes thru it in order to reach the Mexican Border, built by the Chinese workers. Texas Almanac had a photo of it once, taken by the folks of the Highway Dept. and that was after Bob Armstrong told them to go and take one.
        So for this article to really be about unique things about that area, I’d think one of a purple cactus with the black spines,would fit right in. After all, anybody can take a pic of a green cactus.

        • Don Alexander

          NPS website shows 16 Opuntias but that includes the cylindrical padded species, or chollas, also. Otherwise, I think the gist of the article is about the bloom not about uniqueness. I got my purple prickly pear start from private land near FS because you can’t “harvest” in the NP or SP. The 96 Ranch sounds interesting. Do you know who owns it currently? Is that in the Quitman mtns.?

          • PopDaOldMan

            We got ours “back-in-da-day” before it was against any law to dig up plants and move them around. That was several decades ago, like four of them, at least. The 96 Ranch has been busted up, and was sold out in pieces some 20+ years ago. When my Dad started going there it was owned by one family. They sold it to on guy from El Paso, then to another from Houston, then to a holding group. Oh well. the Quitman’s are near Sierra Blanca, while the 96 lies within the Sierra Vieja Mtns. At it’s largest area, the 96 I knew went from the Sierra Vieja’s to just short of the Rio Grande, almost to Candelaria. The family that owner the ranch when I was a kid, bought Cedar Post from my dad and used them in the fence around the ranch. I saw them in use some 18 years after the fence had been built and in that dry air in West Texas, they looked real good. Not like new mind you but in good condition just the same. God knows I love that country, but that’s another story. Oh yes, my family ranch was called the Sun Valley Ranch and was just west of Austin. Lost Creek and Barton Creek along with the country clubs are on our old ranch site. The Lost Creek Club House sits on the hilltop that my Mom picked out for her home. It was bulldozed down some 15′-20′ and leveled to make room for the clubhouse. But their swimming pool is in the same place where our swimming pool was. Oh well, another story too.

    • My guess is the purple on cactus is part species, as well as climate (and humidity, rainfall, cloudcover) – water – soils.
      While central TX is often alkaline, limestone “soil”, so is much of the Trans Pecos. But moisture is so much higher, eastward from the Pecos and especially nearing Austin. Entire species of the same genus tend to be greener further into moister climates, though even plants of the same species respond differently when grown in the desert vs. the prairie or woodlands.
      There are 2 species of native prickly pears and 1 nearer Tucson that are purple, moreso in winter when cooler and drier, then green up more in summer except if stressed (extreme heat, drought).

  • Don Alexander

    The text mentions pink yucca but there aren’t any photos of it. Too bad. I was out there last year and indeed the hum of insects was something new for me. Around every corner of each hike was a new aroma. Mr. Evan’s photos are a lot better than mine. Thanks.

    • Agreed – an inspiring article with amazing photos and word-imagery. Also agreed – articles should show the images they write of, especially if something unusual…was the “pink yucca” a Hesperaloe parviflora, or a Yucca of some species but with a pinkish instead of whitish bloom?