Yet plants like prickly pear can be a friend

By Lisa Schmidt

The ewe had that look: Head sagging, ears lowered, a shuffling step.

Her twin lambs hugged her side, leaving their jumping and cavorting for another day.

One of Lisa Schmidt’s ewes, out on her ranch near Conrad, Montana.

I encouraged her to meander closer to the sheep corral for the night, only 100 yards away. The corral provides protection from coyotes and grizzlies for the sheep and helps me sleep at night, but I knew nothing would eat this ewe.

At four years old, she had sampled death camas. I had no antidote.

The next morning, her lambs snuggled next to her cold body, confused, scared, maybe hoping she would wake up with the warming sun.

My 12-year-old daughter, Abby, and I caught the lambs, but their survival is questionable. They need milk, but are too old to figure out how to suck from a bucket. If they are fast enough to beat the cats to it, they can drink milk from a pan.

Meanwhile, death camas is blooming across the ranch, in every hillside depression where snowdrifts lingered last winter.

It looks like an onion, with a bulb for a root. When my kids were little and we chatted as we walked across the pasture, we talked about the pioneers and outlaws who made stews from native plants. It wouldn’t take much death camas in a stew to solve a few problems around the campfire, but the cook might want to eat something else that night.

That idea reminded me of the time I got revenge by cooking breakfast.

No, I didn’t try to kill anyone with death camas, just with my bad cooking.

I was working on a ranch on the Utah desert then. Periodically, the neighbor who lived 150 miles away, but grazed his cattle nearby would bring his crew to spend the night while working cows.

As the lowly cow puncher, I was expected to wake up early, saddle all of the horses, make breakfast and then wake up the men.

I got tired of that arrangement.

So I made pancakes. As I spooned cereal for myself, I could hear those pancakes plummet to the bottom of the other stomachs at the breakfast table. Thud!

I snuck a sandwich into my saddle bag, but nobody else needed lunch that day. Those pancakes were still so heavy on their bellies, they all looked top heavy on their horses.

I never had to make breakfast again.

I bet a campfire cook could send the same message with death camas.

But not all spring plants on the prairie will kill a person.

Prickly Pear at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
Photo courtesy of

Prickly pear cactus might maim someone, but probably won’t kill her.

Prickly pear is not considered a desirable plant on most rangelands. Nothing eats it and those stickers hurt — especially in the roof of my mouth after I pull off my leather glove with my teeth.

But that is a story for another day.

If I can keep them out of my mouth, those prickly pear stickers work slowly and subtly to improve rangelands.

Good range managers abhor bare ground. Bare ground allows wind and rain to erode the soil.

Even if the soil stays where it needs to be, if it has nothing covering it, it heats up until most plants can’t grow.

Kids know this after they scorch their bare feet on August dirt.

Prickly pear seeds need bare ground to germinate.

Often, I see new prickly pear growing on badger or gopher mounds. Cacti are the first pioneers to explore that barren terrain. As the cactus grows and spreads across the former badger mound, it creates a protected environment for grass seed to establish. The grass has a competitive advantage because the cactus spines protect it from grazing animals. It can go to seed and spread more grass.

That symbiosis intrigues me. The role for prickly pear cactus in the world makes sense to me.

Lisa Schmidt and her horse Meatloaf.

I’m not sure why death camas exists, though.

By Lisa Schmidt. Lisa Schmidt raises grass-fed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad. She has two children; Will, 21, and Abby, 12. Lisa can be reached at[email protected].

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