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Page 3

Prickly Pear Cactus

by C. F. Eckhardt
'Pear,' to a Texas rancher, isn't the succulent fruit of the tree, but the prickly pear cactus. He curses it, grubs it out, and attempts to hate it to death-until dry times. Then it's his best friend. When the sky turns that bright metallic blue that almost burns your eyes and the few clouds blow by without offering anything, not even momentary shade, and the grass withers from lack of rain, then ranchers sing the praises of pear.

The prickly pear cactus is an amazing plant. It has one of the most beautiful flowers in nature, the cactus rose-so beautiful that John Nance Garner, who would later be vice-president of the United States, got the nickname 'Cactus Jack' after years of advocating the cactus rose as the Texas state flower. Its flowers give way to a succulent reddish-purple fruit called a tuna that is rich in sugar, makes a pretty fair candy and jelly, and can be used as the basis for a sweet, smooth wine with a mulekick hidden in each jar. Its pads, called nopales in Spanish, are rich in both carbohydrates and roughage, and contain a lot of water when nothing else does.

Prickly pears are also-well, they're prickly. They're a lot more than just prickly. They're covered with long, strong, sharp spines to protect the plant from grazing and browsing animals, afford small animals refuge from larger predators, and-strangely enough-protect the remaining grass seeds from seed-eaters so once the rains return the seeds can germinate and the grass can grow. After a drought the first place you'll see grass growing on the range is around the edges of patches of pear.

Animals can eat pear, and some do-but most pay a fearful price. The spines stab them in their most sensitive anatomy-lips, tongues, gums, and snouts-and remain imbedded in the flesh, festering and creating pus pockets that make it impossible for the animals to eat. Old Texas longhorns, tough as saddle leather and cattle best suited to hard, dry country, could usually chew the pear spines and all, but the with importation of European and Asiatic beef stock-Herefords, Angus, beef shorthorn, and Brahman-chewing pear meant dead stock.

Pear was-and remains-an excellent source of nourishment and water for livestock, but only if they can eat it. That's how the concept of 'burnin' pear' originated.

When you 'burn pear,' you don't burn the cactus itself. The object is to singe the spines off the pads and stems so your stock can chew the food value and moisture out of the thick, succulent nopales. In early Texas pear was burned with a long-handled torch made of rags soaked with coal oil, today called kerosene. A green pole about six or seven feet long was the basis for a pear torch. You wrapped the end of it with old, absorbent rags, wired them in place with baling wire, then soaked them in coal oil. You stood next to the pearbush you were going to burn, put a match to the torch, and began to rub the flaming torch across the pads, burning away the spines without burning the pads themselves. It could take a man a whole day to burn the spines off a patch of pear half the size of a small city lot, and his cattle could eat the patch in an hour and a half.

Sometime in the early 1900s some ingenious individual took a look at a gasoline blowtorch and said "You know, if that outfit had some reach on it, it'd be just plain jim-dandy for burnin' pear." The result was what Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold in their farm-and-ranch catalogs for years as 'flame throwers' and ranchers called 'pear burners.'

The pear-burner was a tank with an integral air pump for pressurization much like the blowtorch from which it originated-or like a Coleman lantern, if you've never seen a blowtorch. The tank held about a gallon of 'white' (unleaded) gasoline. Attached to the tank was a long wand, and at the end of the wand there was a nozzle with a cup below it. When properly pressurized, it put out a flame of about 2,500f about a foot and a half to two feet long. It came with a sturdy canvas strap so you could hang it over your shoulder, because it weighed about 20 lbs with a full tank of gas.

Dry times are usually hot times. The temperature hovers around the 100 mark most of the day, especially in the sun-and pear grows in the sun. Putting out a 2,500 roaring flame on a 100+ day is hot work, so you'd expect a man to dress accordingly. Pear-burning attire consists of heavy boots, jeans, a pair of leather chaps-and not chinks or batwings, either, but shotguns or Texas-legs-a heavy shirt, a brush jacket, a bandanna, a felt hat-straw is liable to blow off into the flame, leaving you hatless in the burning sun-and a pair of White Mule gauntlet gloves. There is reason for this. First, you're about to wade into a patch of pear. Spines will be deflected by your boots, chaps, brush jacket, and gloves, but not by Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes. Second, you never know what might be in that patch of pear besides pear. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and a host of assorted nasties including scorpions, centipedes, and wasps like the shade pear provides.

With a pear-burner you don't smoke. You've got a gallon of pressurized gasoline hanging right under your backside, and the potential for a fried behind is great enough without adding to it with a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. Pear-burnin' time is when the pouch of Red Man or plug of Day's Work comes out.

You are producing a very hot tongue of flame that has the potential to set things afire that you might not want afire. In the pickup you carry a 55-gallon barrel of water with a hand-pump and hose attached. Your drinking water is in a burlap-covered gallon jug in the pickup's cab. Periodically you soak the burlap with a squirt from the drum, and evaporation keeps your drinking water cool. That barrel of water has another purpose, though. You use the pump and hose to soak the ground and vegetation around the patch of pear you're going to burn so it won't catch fire while you're burning the pear. You can also use it to put out any fires you accidentally start.

Once the grass and ground is soaked, you fill the tank on the pear-burner, pump it up, and pour some gas into the lighter cup. You set that gas afire and then open the valve on the wand. If the sudden rush of pressurized gas doesn't blow out the flame in the lighter cup, you're rewarded with a sudden roar as eighteen inches to two feet of flame leaps out of the nozzle. You shoulder the strap, hang the tank under your behind, and wade into the patch of pear, spewing spine-singeing flame as you go.

A good man with a pear-burner, if he doesn't dehydrate and die of thirst in the process, can burn the spines off an acre or so of pear in a day. It will take his cattle most of the next day to chew the nopales to a stringy mass while extracting both nourishment and moisture. As they do so the pear-burning cowboy burns another acre or so of pear. With luck-and enough pear-by the time he burns the last patch of pear on his place the first patch he burned has grown new, succulent- -and heavily-spined-nopales, and he can start over. And those are just a few of the things about being a cowboy Roy, Gene, Hoppy, and the rest never bothered to mention.

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C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
August 30, 2006 column

Related Topic:
Texas Ranching

Texas Books by C. F. Eckhardt

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