Cecily Gill COLUMN
AT THE GARDENS
Desert spoon is
A 1920 flora guide of Mexico says that desert spoon species were pit roasted, then fermented and distilled to obtain a highly intoxicating drink known as ”sotol.” Desert spoon, or sotol, is a plant newcomers to Tucson may view with some curiosity: What is it? Is it a yucca? A grass? Today I’ll talk about three species that do well as accent plants in spacious locations.
Desert spoon (Dasylirion is the Latin name) belongs to the agave family (along with yuccas and agaves). They are native to deserts where they can survive on 11 inches of rainfall and temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Desert spoon may flower in late spring or early summer, sending up a tall stalk. To get seeds, you need both a male and female plant. The catch: You don’t know what you have until it blooms! Luckily, unlike the agaves, the desert spoon does not die after flowering.
For our own landscapes sotol needs plenty of space and full sun exposure. Though it can do fine on Tucson’s normal rainfall, it will flourish with supplemental watering during the dry late spring and summer. Do note: This should be a soak-and-let-dry-out type of watering, and not constant moisture. Good drainage will help the plant thrive.
Maintenance is easy – just prune the dried flower stalk. Pruning dry leaves at the base of the plant is a personal choice. Our local desert spoon, Dasylirion wheeleri, can easily end up looking like a giant scrub-brush, so I like to leave the lower skirts on this plant. The taller green desert spoon and toothless desert spoon are both tree species and will eventually develop a trunk. Do whatever looks best for your own landscape.
Some desert spoon facts: Dasylirion wheeleri can be found in southeastern Arizona, at elevations of 3000- to 5000-feet. The plant can be easily recognized on a hike by its blue-green toothed leaves and low stature. Often an old flower spike remains. In tended landscapes, it can reach a height of 5 feet, with a low trunk, and a width of 6 feet. This desert spoon is hardy to 0 degrees Fahrenheit and is a slow to moderately fast grower.
Dasylirion acrotriche (dazzyLEERrion akroTRIKEee), or green desert spoon, resembles its above-mentioned cousin, but its toothed leaves are a rich green color. It also grows somewhat taller than the blue spoon, with a maximum height of 8 feet with a 3foot trunk. Of the three, the green desert spoon is the fastest grower and is hardy to at least 15 degrees. You won’t see this one on a hike as it is native to eastern Mexico.
The toothless desert spoon, otherwise known as Dasylirion longissimum and Mexican grass tree, is the largest of the three. This dazzling plant grows to about 9 feet tall, and 9 feet wide, with a 6-foot trunk. Don’t worry about size though – it’s the slowest growing of the three plants and takes years to even start showing a trunk, much less look like a grassy-topped palm as it does in its native Mexico. Mexican grass tree is hardy and not fussy about soil. It grows well in full sun or in filtered light, and its graceful leaves blend equally well with desert or ”greener” landscapes.
A last note: The name desert spoon refers to spoon shaped leaf bases that can be used for decorative purposes. In addition, the fibers of sotol leaves have been used to make thatch, baskets, hats, mats, and rough cordage.
PHOTOS: NORMA JEAN GARGASZ/Tucson Citizen
Desert spoon aka Dasylirion wheeleri
Green desert spoon aka Dasylirion acrotriche
Toothless desert spoon aka Dasylirion longissimum