(*Photo of the Month)
The earth is so full of the glories of God’s creation… Oh, I had been in the desert often and seen its flowering cactus -- the soft pinks and yellows of prickly pear, the even quieter yellows of chollas, the blinding red-oranges of hedgehog claret cups and reds of barrel cactus. What I was not prepared for was my first view last spring of the strange and marvelous sotol.
Gail and I were still new to New Mexico at the time, and we’d gone out on Mothers Day afternoon to hike an area called Aguirre Springs on the eastern slope of the Organ Mountains, We rounded a bend in the access road and came upon an enormous, ten-foot-tall flower just off the roadside, shooting out of what we thought was a yucca. As usual when we don’t know what something is, we snapped a photo to check later and went on. Having showed it around to several people, we even took the photo to a nursery to seek the name, but all we were ever told was, “It’s some kind of yucca.” Some even said the Soap Tree Yucca, which happens to be the state flower. But looking up the various photos online yielded nothing that came close to matching what we saw.
|Soap Tree Yucca, the NM state flower
Now, yucca blooms are actually quite stunning in their own right, the New Mexico plants huge compared to those of the knee-high variety that poke us in the knees along Colorado trails. Flower stalks can also be ten to twenty feet tall, especially when the plants start to grow into trees as the photo to the right. The two New Mexico varieties are the Banana Yucca, named for the green banana-looking seedpods that develop when the plant matures; and the Soap Tree, the roots of which were used by ancient peoples to make a kind of frothy soap. Both plants were also extensively utilized as food sources and to make a rough twine that could be formed into all sorts of things – rope, sandals, baskets, mats, etc. California’s Joshua Tree is an additional yucca variety. Another plant with an enormous bloom native to the desert southwest is the agave, one variety of which, the blue, is exclusively patented by Mexico for the distillation of tequila.
But back to sotols. We finally found a friend who could set us straight, the same friend who along with her husband later took us on that wildflower hike I wrote of on Mexican poppies in March. Melanie said, “No, that’s not a yucca, it’s a Desert Spoon Sotol, desylarion wheeleri, not even the same family.” Mystery solved. She also said that last year seemed a banner year for sotol blooms, but we are seeing near as many this year as last.
Unlike the yucca, and besides its very different flower, the sotol has tiny barbed hooks on the edges of its half- to three-quarter-inch wide frond stems, more slender than yucca fronds. The sotol frond cluster can be three to four feet in diameter, and the base of a cooked stem may be eaten as one eats an artichoke leaf. There at the base the stem broadens and cups; in prehistoric times, it was dried and used as a spoon, thus the name. As with yuccas, fibers were stripped from the sotol frond to make the same kind of twine products mentioned above. And the cool bloom? The plant takes up to fifteen years to mature and then can flower every several years. (The agave, on the other hand, matures for years, then blooms once and dies.) Flowers range in color from yellow to orange, rust and
burgundy. The bloom stalk can be up to sixteen feet tall, measuring
four inches in diameter at its base, and hardens into a tough pole that also had
various uses for native people. (I myself have a dandy hiking pole made out of
one.) Interestingly, the stalk was commonly used as a fireplow. The plant used to be harvested and made into a beer, but
as with the agave, some Mexican companies are distilling it into a mescal spirit
called, not too creatively, sotol!
The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus It will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)
Let my teaching drop as the rain. My speech distil as the dew, as the droplets on the fresh grass and the showers on the herb. (Deuteronomy 32:2)
~~ RGM, May 27, 2015