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.