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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dr. Seuss and Other Desert Lilies

Agave (left) & sotol
When 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.

Now, 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.

Soaptree yucca

Yucca with last year's flower stalk
Soaptree 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
Less 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 dies.

Agave stalk
Does 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.


The 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.

Can you believe these plants are all members of the lily family? Lilies? Isn’t ours an amazing world?



Kathy said...

It certainly is amazing that they are all members of the lily family. Who would have suspected? Some things simply take time...and figuring out about new flora and fauna seems to take a while. I congratulate you!

Karen Casebeer said...

Wonderful images! You are teaching us so much about the plant world in your part of the country. I can see a slight resemblance to the lily family...but I have to stretch myself to do so.