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Saturday, March 14, 2015
Dr. Seuss and Other Desert Lilies
Agave (left) & sotol
we first arrived here, the plant life had me completely bewildered. There was
almost nothing in the Southwest that I could recognize from my life in the
Midwest. About the only thing I could look at and name was prickly pear cactus,
but no, that’s not a lily. The lilies I’m talking about are plants consisting
basically of big rosettes of leaves on the ground -- some then rising up like
trees, others not; some with flower stalks, some without; some with fleshier
leaves than others – all plants we sped by along the highway while I tried to
make rudimentary sketches to aid memory until I could get my hands on a book.
two months later, their differences seem so obvious that it’s hard to remember
how clueless I was at first. What I thought were four different plants are in
fact only three, and they no longer confuse me at all.
Yucca with last year's flower stalk
yucca is very common in the area around Dos Cabezas. It’s the one I thought was
at least a couple of different plants, because the young ones are just ground
height, older ones more like trees, and some that are tree-height also branch.
Soaptree yucca is the one I call the Dr. Seuss plant. Doesn’t it look like one
of his drawings? Like tumbleweed, like roadrunners – both frantically animated
in a herky-jerky cartoon manner – soaptree yucca strikes me as very droll.
Seeing it always makes me smile, and so I’m usually smiling as we roll along,
because soaptree yucca is ubiquitous in Cochise County.
Yucca branched like a tree
common near us, but even showier, and considerably slower to grow to its
climactic flowering stage, is the century plant. My friend Helen had one
outside her living room in Carefree. Friend Clare over outside Benson used a
dry flower stalk for a spectacular Christmas tree. Century plant is agave,
grown commercially in Mexico for the production of tequila. There are a few
young plants near the cabin, but will they even flower in my lifetime? It
doesn’t really take a complete century (just as a centipede doesn’t really have
a hundred legs), but it’s a long wait for the blossoms. Even after the flower
stalk begins to emerge, years into the plant’s lifetime, it takes weeks and
weeks. (Right, Helen?) And then, after it flowers and scatters its seeds, it
the agave stalk above look like a giant asparagus spear to you? Did you follow the link in the last sentence? Are you astonished? I was.
third plant I originally confused with soaptree yucca and century plant is the
sotol (above). How could I ever have mixed them up? The shape of the sotol’s flower
head, even in its dry winter form, is completely distinctive! It looks like a spear or a flame. There are lots of
sotol over to the west of us, in Texas Canyon and beyond, and there’s a colony
a few miles east, on the way to Chiricahua, but of the three, it’s the plant I
see least often. All three, however, are frequent along the I-10 corridor.
you believe these plants are all members of the lily family? Lilies? Isn’t ours an amazing world?