A Spoonful of Sotol

 

Texas Sotol (Dasylirion texanum) and Texas oaks ~ Bandera County

A variety of Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) found in Mexico’s Chihuahua region grows as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and extreme west Texas. A distillate made from the plant, also known as Sotol, is akin to Mezcal and Tequila, although those more familiar spirits are produced from a variety of agaves.

A succulent with long, spiny leaves, Sotol became known as ‘desert spoon’ because of concavities at the base of its leaves. Those leaves are edged with tiny, upward-pointing serrations, while its inflorescence consists of thousands of small, white flowers in a dense, vertical plume.

Tiny but dangerous spines on Texas Sotol

Another species of Sotol, Dasylirion texanum, is similar, and more common across Texas; Texas distillers are putting it to good use. One company near Austin, Desert Door, is producing a fully made-in-Texas Sotol; their website is well worth visiting — both for photos of our native Sotol and for information about their distilling process. The section related to conservation is especially interesting.

Take a closer look ~ it might be Sotol, not Yucca

When I stopped to photograph the colorful oaks along the highway outside Bandera, I assumed I’d parked next to a species of Yucca. Later, when photos revealed the serrated edges of the leaves, they served as a first clue that I’d found Sotol — another reward for exploring unfamiliar territory.

 

Comments always are welcome.

48 thoughts on “A Spoonful of Sotol

    1. I was more than a little surprised to learn this wasn’t some variety of yucca. Beyond that, every gardening site that mentioned the plant advised not planting it anywhere close to a sidewalk; those serrated edges apparently are just as dangerous as they appear.

      1. Those vicious edges were the first thing I noticed – and I really wouldn’t want to get too close to them! They do look impressive though.

        1. When I first got a good look at them, I couldn’t help thinking of bread knives and crosscut saws. I wonder if native peoples made us of them for cutting. You’d have to be careful — and maybe strip the spines from one side — but as stiff as the leaves are, I can’t help thinking they might work.

    1. When I looked at the map, I noticed that the eastern edge of their range is remarkably straight, north to south. There must be something going on with the topography in general that limits them: rainfall comes to mind, and soil type. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got some books that probably will explain it to me. What I’m certain of is that I have to make it all the way past San Antonio to find it. There are yuccas and agaves here, but they’re almost all planted as landscape additions.

  1. A warrior plant, complete with spines ready to do battle! Wonderful find, Linda, and I’m glad you were able to get close enough to photograph him without getting stuck. Interesting that somebody was brave enough to discern a good use for it, too.

    1. When the day comes that a developer creates a video game devoted to life in the plant community, I think you’ve pin-pointed a good role role for this one. On the other hand, battles fought with these things are better left to the imagination. It would take about thirty seconds of Sotal-sword play for any kid to decide on a different game. The smart ones never would start!

      I must say, some of these cocktails sound appealing. I do like a Margarita, so I’d certainly be willing to try one or two.

  2. Very nice shot of those “tiny but dangerous spines.” I’ve casually brushed against what I thought was a harmless yucca and come away with a painful surprise more than once.

    1. If I’m reading the radar right, you may have had a chance to see Sotol — or yucca, or cedar — in snow today. I suppose that’s not quite the high excitement there that it would be here, but it still would be fun. If you do get snow, surely there will be some snow-cat photos (if they’re willing to venture out).

      1. So far the real snow line has stayed to the north of us. We had a few fat flakes in the air for 5-10 minutes, but otherwise it’s just been cold rain. The 2 remaining outdoor semi-ferals are hanging out on the deck, napping in the straw in their boxes, staying dry and looking for extra helpings of food to stoke their internal fires. We’ve been happy to oblige.

  3. The bloom stalk of the sotol is the straightest of the yucca-type bloom stalks, and due to its construction, it is extremely strong and light, making it the most ideal walking stick I’ve ever found.

    By stripping the outer skin of the stalk, like shucking corn, then sanding and varnishing it, it is both easy on the hand and durable. I have several that are over 20 years old. (Be careful not to gather them in either the state or national parks, as it is illegal. That leaves private land as your best source, but be sure you have permission in advance.

    1. That’s really interesting. I noticed some bloom stalks with these plants, which were right along the highway right-of-way, and that remarkable straightness caught my eye. I certainly can handle the sanding and varnishing, and I’ve shucked plenty of corn in my day; now that I know what they are and how to prepare them, I’ll have to look for the stalks when I’m back in the area.

  4. I never heard of Sotol and it sounds like an interesting drink. I recently had some gin made from junipers foraged in West Texas mountains. As for the spines, I once heard the advice to put plants like that under your windows to keep intruders out and they would probably keep you from washing your windows.

    1. Have you heard the old tale about gin-soaked raisins being helpful for arthritis? My mother and her friends believed the juniper berries provided the active ingredient that eased the pain, but my friends and I always thought it was just an excuse to keep some gin in the house. I’ve not tried Sotal, but I see that some of the Spec’s stores sell small bottles — maybe an ounce or so. I wouldn’t want to buy a larger bottle unless I like it.

      Plants as defense have been tried. I don’t know about Sotol, but one of the University of Oklahoma campuses once tried trifoliate orange because of its 2″-3″ thorns. Eventually, they figured out it’s an invasive, and had to get rid of it.

      1. Yes, I have heard of the raisins. I go straight for the gin. I can get some very bad muscle/nerve pain in my shoulder and found gin is a better cure than Advil. I tried others, but I perfer Hendrick’s to do the trick as it does have juniper berries and must have the right ratio. Alcohol makes me sleepy, so I have to wait until the end of the day. I take it like medicine with just enough tonic to get it down.

  5. Sotol sounds like a medicine and I never heard of it. Neither has my dictionary as it underscored it by a red line and offered different words instead.(Sogol, Soto, Stools)
    I wonder what creatures would try and negotiate a way through those plants? Lovely and beautiful photos.

    1. It makes some sense that you wouldn’t have heard of Sotol-the-drink. Commercial production’s still quite limited, especially since the Texas version is made from a plant that’s equally limited, growing in only a few counties in the state. I did find a hint about the creatures who make use of it. Texas Parks and Wildlife says, “Sotol plays a diverse role in the food chain… Black Bears in Texas especially relish the succulent base of the Sotol plant. In desert environments, it’s common to find partially eaten sotol plants where bears have been.”

      The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum says the blooms “attract huge numbers of insects, including flies, bees, wasps, and butterflies.” Hummingbirds feed on both species, too.

    1. I haven’t tried it. I like Tequila in mixed drinks, but Mezcal’s a little stout for me. I did come across this: “According to an unnamed source, mezcal de Sotol affects you differently, but positively, like no other liquor.” Clearly, a Tequila/Mezcal/Sotol tasting party’s in order.

      Those plants on the page you linked do look worthy of caution. I had to laugh at the Lawyer Vine. I presume that’s not an aboriginal name! We have a couple of vines that can stop you dead in your tracks; getting disentangled isn’t always easy.

    1. I love ‘Desert Door’ as a name, and I was completely impressed with their website. If you haven’t explored it, you should, just to admire the skill behind its design. While I was snooping around, I checked to see where their Sotol is sold. Spec’s has it of course, but I was surprised to see Coyote Liquors listed — that little place next to the Chevron gas station at the corner of Marina Bay and Invincible. I’ve never been in there, but I might stop by and see what it’s like.

    1. It was, indeed. As a matter of fact, it was the last natural discovery of my trip, just before my car decided it had seen enough and wanted to head to the repair shop!

  6. Serendipity!!
    Every post of yours brings with it a new learning. Yucca I’m familiar with, but this desert spoon is an entirely new thing. Beautiful photos too!

    1. At the time, I was certain I’d found a species of Yucca unfamiliar to me, so you can imagine my surprise when I figured out it was Sotol. Like Yuccas, its fibers have been used in various ways, but I haven’t found any evidence that the bottom portion of the stem ever was used as an actual spoon. I assume not, although I suppose it could happen if someone wanted to be diligent about removing the thorny parts.

      I thought the variously colored oaks made a fine background for the plant, and it was fun playing with the exposures.

  7. It is a very handsome plant, and I expect you were quite thrilled to happen on it. I have never heard of Sotol, but adventurous fellow that I am I would be willing to give it a shot (pun intended) if ever the chance presented itself!

    1. Apparently it hasn’t made it to your province yet, but when travel restrictions are lifted, if you find yourself farther west, it looks like it’s available in the western provinces. Perhaps they ship. Here’s an article you might find interesting. The more I read about Sotol, the more I find myself willing to give it a shot; as the saying goes, you never try, you never know.

    1. I did like it: not only for the story itself, but for the memories it evoked. I’m old enough to vividly remember lining up at our school to get that same sugar cube with the drop of vaccine on it. I had no idea there was a connection between that experience and the Mary Poppins song. That’s really wonderful!

  8. At Austin’s Mount Bonnell there’s a sotol that for whatever reason someone (or someones) put smallish stones into the center of. It could be the same impulse that has made people in recent years think they have to leave piled-up stones in many places out in nature. Maybe it’s our era’s version of Kilroy was here.

    1. I’d never heard of Mount Bonnell, but after reading about it and learning how accessible it is, I’m not surprised someone was tempted to leave a little token of their visit.

      I’ve never heard of anyone putting stones inside a plant, but at least they didn’t dig it up and take it home. About a year or so ago, at the San Bernard refuge, a guy stopped to see what I was photographing and actually dug up the plant while my camera still was focused on it. He took about an 8″ knife from his backpack to dig it up; if it hadn’t been for the knife, I might have thrown more of a fit than I did.

    1. You’ve just jogged my memory; I need to go back and add a “Texas endemics” tag to this one. Although there are other Sotol species, this one is native only to Texas. I’m especially fond of plants that are “just ours”!

  9. Those stems look like they’d make a good bone saw. Curious about the flowers, I Googled first landing on the LBJ site. It appears they are on small stems that resemble female pine flowers. It said cold hardy so I looked at the range and that told me just why they are called “Texas” Sotol. Obviously not cold hardy enough for a northeastern garden.
    Whatever is in the background made for a nice complement.

    1. As a matter of fact, the ‘Texas’ Sotol is well named; it’s a Texas endemic. Other Sotol species range farther afield, but this one is limited to only a few counties in the state. That’s one reason I’d never come across it, or, more likely, have seen it and assumed it was a yucca. The infloresence is long, small in diameter, and straight. I’ve read that the stems can stand as much as ten feet above the plant itself.

      The background is made up of oaks in the process of turning autumn colors. When I went to Lost Maples, those trees already had lost their leaves, but the oaks were just coming on. My timing was good. When I went back a week later to reclaim Princess, a front had come through, and all the pretty color was gone.

  10. These are nice shots, Linda, with the colorful background. I like the first one particularly, with the nice diagonal lines. Cannot believe someone dug out a plant while you were photographing it, cripes.

    1. If it hadn’t been for those diagnonal lines, I might not have taken the time to photograph these. They were a little ragged, since they were at the very edge of the highway, and obviously had suffered a bit from mowers and such. Focusing on the undamaged portions worked out pretty well. I was standing only a few feet away from where I took this photo of the oaks.

      That experience with the plant thief was a little unnerving. I went so far as to tell him he wasn’t supposed to be digging up the fauna, but a combination of astonishment and caution kept me from saying what I was thinking. Sometimes, even I know enough to keep my mouth shut. It was “only” a wild onion. Maybe he was going to use it for supper.

    1. That’s right: edges, points, ridges — all of it. What’s so neat is that so many birds, insects, and small mammals have no trouble navigating the territory at all. Big, inattentive, and a little clumsy, we don’t always fare so well.

    1. Not yet, Curt, but it’s on the 2021 to-do list. First, I need to find someone selling the small, individual bottles, or a few people willing to share a full-sized bottle. The last thing I need is some liquid desert sunshine sitting around if I don’t like it.

          1. Pretty much guaranteed to be cheaper than the gas. Looked at from that perspective, you could easily pour it down the drain. Or into your gas tank? No, best not on that.

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