The Agave Lechuguilla is the smallest agave growing in the Trans-Pecos area of the Chihuahuan Desert. Its leaves are usually less than an inch wide and the plant ranges from 12 to 18 inches in height. Though sometimes listed as an indicator species of the Chihuahuan, that is not strictly the case, as this plant can also be found in the Sonoran and Coahuilan deserts as well. It is the dominant plant species on over 38,000 square miles of calcareous soils that are of little use for anything else.
Lechuguilla frequently grows in almost impenetrable thickets, and its stiff, inwardly curved spines are capable of piercing skin, leather, and even off-road vehicle tires. If you’ve ever stepped in one you understand first-hand how the curvature of the spine helps it dig deep into your calf; how its backwardly aimed side spines make it difficult to get free, and how its deep puncture wounds hurt like the dickens and can take months to heal. These spines can cripple a horse and severely injure any human who happens to fall upon it. If there is one plant in the Chihuahuan desert to avoid, this is it.
But Lechuguilla is not all bad. Like its other agave brethren, it stays green year round. When it’s old enough it sends up a flower stalk that rises 10 to 15 feet; it is covered with lovely wine and yellow colored flowers.
Since the flowering stalk is so tall, you may spend quite a bit of time visiting the Chihuahuan Desert without seeing the small flowers which create this display. I photographed this one while standing on a steep embankment which put the flower stalk at eye level.
Lechuguilla, as much as any other plant in the Trans Pecos, gives our area the look that tells us this is home. When it is in bloom Lechuguilla hosts countless pollinating insects, including the Cohuila Giant Skipper that is entirely dependent on this plant. After flowering, the remaining stalk is one of the few viable alternatives to wood to be found in the Chihuahuan desert.
Lechuguilla has been used for food, drink, and fiber for over 10,000 years. The toxic juices have been used as an arrow poison, a fish stupefier, a medicine, and a soap. Aztecs made a powerful antibiotic from a mixture of Lechuguilla juice and salt and used it as a dressing for wounds and a balm for skin infections. The Mescalero Apaches baked the central stems in pits and then rolled out the pulp, dried it and stored it as a sort of sweat bread. They also fermented the pulp to make an alcoholic drink that is made today and sold in Mexico as “Clandestino;” the water stored in the leaves is rich in salts and minerals and is sold as a sports drink.
People have always valued lechuguilla for its fiber. Its leaves are so thick with fiber that it is difficult to see how the plant stores anything else inside. The fibers are long, tough, resilient, strong, and extremely durable. Native Americans fashioned lechuguilla fibers into sandals, baskets, nets, rugs, cordage and a wide range of other products. Lechuguilla sandals have been recovered from numerous rock shelters in the eastern Trans-Pecos; visitors to Seminole Canyon state park in Texas can view lechuguilla mats that are thousands of years old. You can read more about the pair of sandals shown below at the Texas Beyond History website: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/gallery.html
Thousands of peasants in Mexico make their livings gathering and processing Lechuguilla fiber today. The fiber, called “ixtle” in Mexico, is often referred to as “Mexico’s Natural Wonder” in recognition of its unique characteristics. Used as bristles in brushes, Lechuguilla fiber has proven its distinct worth, possessing exceptional water-retention characteristics, excellent biodegradability, and superior heat and chemical resistance. Most of the brushes, insulation fiber, matting, bags, coarse twine, and rope produced in northeastern Mexico today are still made from Lechuguilla fiber. Though the fiber has long been supplanted by synthetics in the US, it is again becoming more valuable as people search for more sustainable and natural products. You will find ixtle fiber brushes of many kinds for sale on the web, and your local health food store may carry a Lechuguilla-based shampoo that is reputed to leave hair soft and lustrous.
As more and more people return to using natural products we can expect to see an increasing number of products containing this wonderful fiber. Nevertheless, this plant will always remain one of those “look but do not touch” members of the Chihuahuan desert community.
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I recently did two cross-country hikes in Big Bend NP. On one hiking up to the northernmost of the two Sue Peaks we followed an old burn scar. It is very visible driving into the park from Marathon. The second was a hike into Fresno Canyon coming from the east. In both cases the burn scars made for wonderful hiking. The lechuguilla was completely burned and the ground was bare with little regrowth of anything. Even though green it sure burns completely.
Correction: The fibers are not called ixtl. It’s ixtle in moden Mexicano or ixtli in Classical Nahuatl.
Thanks for the correction. I’m going to fix the post now.
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Last spring I hiked over the top of Chilicotal Mountain in Big Bend NP. It was a miserable hike because of loose rock and dead lechuguilla. For much of the hike lechuguilla was the only plant cover and mortality looked close to 100%. I wondered if it was the zero degree weather the previous winter that killed it or that in combination with the drought. It would be interesting to go back and look at the area. A hike south/east of Rice Tank along the ridge line would be close and fairly easy.
Will be looking at Hinckley Oak this weekend and may meet you.
You are right. The severe freeze followed by severe drought killed most of these plants — Javalina ate
most of the rest. But they are coming back. I’ve even seen two or three blooming on the limestone sides
of the Solitario.
Hope we can meet this weekend.
WAY WAY back in the mid-to-late 80s, a backcountry Ranger friend of mine hiked Chilicotal Mnt. He said that he had discovered the ‘point from which all Lechuguilla emanates….’ It’s good to know that the 2011 freeze/drought did in a LOT of the plants on the top of the mountain. Lechuguilla is NOT endangered and when it is really wet and warm it goes totally NUTS. We lost much on our property and several areas I was familiar with–most of us kind of cheered….!
Gotta confess that in my younger, backpacking days I often called the plant “wretchugilla!”
FYI, lechuguilla is one of a set of indicator plants for the Chihuahuan desert. The subset includes other plants (tarbush, etc) as well as the lechuguilla to reflect the unique set of environmental qualities and characteristics found in this desert. Indicator organisms are used to monitor or serve as a proxy for an ecosystem state, integrity, or a certain process within a defined location.
Many people often confuse ‘indicator sp.’ with ‘endemic sp.’, the latter defined by being unique to a defined geographic location and not native to any other location. Since lechuguilla is also found in the southern portion of the Sonoran Desert (Lechuguilla Desert in both US and Sonora, Mexico), it is debatable whether lechuguilla is truly endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert. Or whether lechuguilla in the southern Sonoran and in the Coahuilan Deserts indicates movement of the species and/or a transitional zone that has moved west over time. I suspect, more than anything, that the lechuguilla serves as a flagship species, acting as a charismatic species of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is, however, one of the most important species in the indicator subset of Chihuahuan Desert plants that ecologists use to help monitor the integrity of this desert region, especially in the face of climate change.
It is noteworthy to observe the large percentage of the lechuguilla mortality in southern Brewster and Presidio counties. Is this a historical indicator for prolonged drought in the Chihuahuan Desert? Unfortunately, I have not found any recorded baseline data on this correlated with historic climatic data. It would be interesting for local people to make observational notes on when and how the lechuguilla recovers, along with weather and habitat changes over the next few years. (an opportunity for Citizen Science participation)
Very lovely photos! Thank you for sharing those.
Thanks so much for your comments — I did not know that lechuguilla occurred in the Sonoran.
I’ve been watching lechuguilla die for several months. Many die from the drought. Those that
survive are being consumed in great quantity by javelinas. The same is true of most cacti.
Though my evidence is only anecdotal, I can say from watching this plant in different conditions
for over 40 years that lechuguilla always dies during severe droughts. The die-out is so severe
that one is tempted to wonder how the plant recovers though, of course, it always does. I’ll be
commenting on this plant’s recovery when the rains return.
Interesting to know, so many uses for this common plant. Next time i go to big city i will look if any products derived from it are available in this country.
Thanks for sharing knowledge.
this is great gary, why don’t you make us some sandals in your spare time.
keep up the work your getting better.