Texas Trip Notes: Agave and Other Desert Plants

“I want to be absorbed into someplace larger and more expansive than the human brain.  I am seeking a different kind of circuitry, the nervous system of rivers and deserts and mountains born of fire. . . . This is my desire — to simply walk and witness the Chihuahuan Desert, where thousands of species of cactus will ask nothing of me but to be left alone beneath an overarching sky.”  — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

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“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks.  You will find flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickers, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.  Something about desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.”  — Edward Abbey, The Journey Home

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We saw all manner of needled and prickly plants in West Texas.  In truth, I do not know the names of all of them.  Here are a few:

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Prickly pear

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Ocotillo

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Sotol

The agave is sometimes referred to as a “century plant.”  As it blooms, it sends out a tall flower stalk, which looked to me like a giant asparagus stalk.  “Succulents with fleshy leaves that store moisture, agaves are protected by a waxy coating.  They are long-lived, but bloom only once, putting all of their life’s energy into shooting up a rapidly growing stalk as high as fifteen feet and panicled with numerous upraised flowers that bloom at night and are pollinated by bats.  After blooming the entire plant dies, although root runners often sprout clones, called pups, around the parent plant.  Some large agave species are century plants, giving the erroneous impression that they bloom only once in a hundred years, though typically they live for five to thirty-five years.”  — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth

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Agave

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Many of the agave we saw attracted hundreds of these agave bugs.

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“The word agave derives from the Greek agave, meaning “noble” or “admirable,” a name that honors the plant’s many uses.  For most of its life, the agave is  handsome cluster (sometimes roughly the size of a dinner plate, sometimes much larger) of gray-green, serrated leaves, each ending in a long sharp point.  Thanks to these terminal spines, a common Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert agave, lechuguilla, is sometimes called “shin dagger,” a phrase impaled hikers often utter preceded by an expletive.”  — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth

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Tall agave stalk
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Agave flowers covered in bugs
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Agave in bloom
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Agave with dried pods

“Spent agave look like rib cages pried open by ravenous coyotes.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

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Desiccated, spent agave

And here are the lessons from these hardy desert plants:

“Desert strategies are useful:  In times of drought, pull your resources inward; when water is scarce, find moisture in seeds; to stay strong and supple, send a taproot down deep; run when required, hide when necessary; when hot go underground; do not fear darkness, it’s where one comes alive.”  — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

 

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