Surprised by Sotol

After I encountered the yucca-like plant known as Texas Sotol alongside a road leading into Bandera, it never occurred to me that I might find it growing in my own area. Several species are native to Mexico, but only three make their way into Texas. Texas Sotol (Dasylirion texanum) is most common, extending into the Edwards Plateau, while Common Sotol (D. wheeleri) and Green Sotol (D. leiophyllum) are limited to arid, rocky habitats in far west Texas.

None of the plants is native to our coastal counties, and yet there it was: an impressive example of Texas Sotal blooming away at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge on a wet and cloudy day. The sheer size of the bloom stalk compelled attention. The flowers began well above my head, making the bare portion of the stalk at least six feet long. The normal length of a bloom stalk on Texas Sotol is between nine and fifteen feet, so this one was well within the normal range.

The stalk itself was about nine inches in circumference: sturdy enough to support the dramatic collection of flowers. The top of the trunk sometimes is visible, but it’s often buried underground, leading to an easy confusion of sotol with yucca.

The flowers themselves are dioecious, with male and female appearing on separate plants. Their color is variously described as yellow, creamy green, or ivory, but whatever their color, they typically bloom from May to August, attracting hummingbirds in the process. I suspect, but don’t know, that the rosy tinge on these flowers is due to the natural aging process.

Though I wished at the time for blue skies, better light, and a step ladder, even less than perfect images of the flowers above my head were a treat. (Do click any of the images for more detail.) Since the plant doesn’t bloom on a predictable schedule, and may not bloom at all in a given year, it’s impossible to know when I might see this again.



Comments always are welcome.

68 thoughts on “Surprised by Sotol

    1. It is that. I can’t believe I nearly missed it. It was at the entrance to the refuge parking lot, but the road there is a loop, and I didn’t see it until I was leaving and came around the other side of the loop. Between the water lilies and this, it was a very good day.

    1. I wished I could have gotten close enough to use my macro lens, but that wasn’t going to happen unless I clambered up on top of the car. Even then, it was so windy I’m not sure I could have done better. It does have delightful flowers — and so many!

  1. This past week I took a backpacking partner and friend, along with his son and grandson, on a 4-day backpack trip along the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend National Park. On the second day we saw a sight I had never before seen: a black bear selectively feeding on the fresh bloom stalks of the sotol.
    As we watched this very large adult bear (at least 400+ pounds), he would use his paws to push back the green leaves and move his huge muzzle in near the base of the stalk and gnaw through it, then munch down on the large, juicy lower half of the stalk. When done, he would move to another sotol plant and repeat.
    He left a large pile of scat (I’m really being nice here to call it scat), and it was all yellow, indicating that probably his entire diet that day was sotol stalks.
    We were truly “Surprised by Sotol.”

    1. After reading this, I went back to your post to see if I might have missed a photo of your recent encounter with sotol. I’d be willing to bet you have some.

      Bears aren’t the only ones who’ve enjoyed sotol. I found this interesting paragraph:

      “This spiny evergreen plant was an important food staple for the native peoples in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands and adjacent areas of the western and southern Edwards Plateau. Native peoples also made use several other sotol species that can be found to the west across much of the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico and the southern part of the American Southwest. The pulpy central stems or “hearts” of sotol plants were baked and then pounded and formed into chewy patties which could be dried and stored. This carbohydrate food source was probably a mainstay in areas where sotol grew in abundance.”

      That same article mentioned that “its woody flower stalk was valued as a straight, lightweight wood useful for many tasks,” and I remembered your comment about using it as a walking stick. Now that I’ve seen one, it makes perfect sense.

    1. I’m sure I know the answer. It was growing in a bed at the entrance to the refuge’s Discovery Center, along with a large yucca, a Mexican olive tree, an Anacacho orchid tree, and an assortment of more usual native flowers. Since none of those thrive naturally at Brazoria, they probably make up a kind of demonstration plot. All of those survived the freeze; I was amazed to learn that the Sotol is cold hardy down to -20F.

    1. I never had before this. I’ve been going to the Brazoria refuge for years, and although I always stop at the bed where the sotol is growing to admire the big yucca at the other end, and to photograph the flowers of the Mexican olive, I’ve never noticed the sotol. Of course, if it only blooms every few years, I might have started visiting just after its last bloom.

  2. This almost looks like something you’d see under a high-powered microscope! Great captures, Linda, and thanks for educating me this morning. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like this one.

    1. It stopped me in my tracks, Debbie. Yuccas and agaves are used in landscaping around here, and the occasional century plant puts up that tall, tall bloom stalk, but this was something I’d never seen. At first glance, it looked like maize on steroids, but then I figured out I was looking at flowers, not seeds. The plant itself does resemble a yucca when it’s just sitting around and growing, but that flower stalk is amazing.

  3. About a hundred years ago we had a guided hike while camping in the Davis Mountains in west Texas. The ranger pointed out the difference between the Sotol and Yucca. I had never heard of Sotol before then and not again until today.

    Great find and really nice photographs!

    Wonder if some visiting birds are responsible for it growing in Brazoria or if it was a human hand?

    1. With a little more thought, I realized it had to have been planted. It’s growing in a bed at the edge of the parking lot together with other yuccas, Mexican olive, and an Anacacho orchid tree. I assume it’s designed to show off some of the plants that are native to Texas, but not to the Brazoria refuge.

      Since writing my about my first sighting of the sotol plant itself, I’ve had occasion to try a River Rita, made with Desert Door sotol. I highly recommend it.

  4. It almost looked like a dried floral arrangement, Linda. Something about the name made me connect it with alcohol, so I looked it up. Sure enough, it’s being turned into a drink like tequila and mezcal. There is a heavy sugar content in the stalks. No wonder the bear described above like it. There is even a distillery outside of Austin. I assume it doesn’t use the rural Mexico technique of pouring it back and forth between cow horns. I was amused by the comment, “It’s not unusual for some to liken sotol’s funky aroma to sweaty socks.” Made me want to go right out and buy a bottle. :) –Curt

    1. You may have been subconsciously remembering the conversation we had about sotol-the-liquor when I wrote the post I linked to up above. I have tried it since then, and it was Desert Door, the outside-Austin-distillery brand that I tried. I never thought of sweaty socks, though. Maybe the oak-aged they sell has a more pungent odor.

      Apart from differences in taste, sotol does have one advantage over tequila and mezcal: “To make an agave-based spirit, like Tequila or mezcal, the roots of the agave plants must be dug from the ground. Those fields must then be replanted, and it will take several years for the new agave plants to reach maturity. By comparison, when desert spoon is harvested, the root remains intact and the plant will eventually re-grow.”

      The article where I found that is really interesting.

      1. That’s the article where I had ended up, Linda: The Wine Enthusiast, waxing enthusiastically. I’d for gotten that you had introduced me to Sotol. Chock up another one for your continuing-ed course. :)

    1. By size alone, it reminds me of the Century Plants with their huge stalks. The big difference is that once a century plant blooms, it dies. The sotols can bloom multiple times, and become quite old: up to a hundred years, as a matter of fact.

        1. It took me until this morning to find my typo. Of course that would be “once a century plant blooms, it dies.” I don’t know what it does!

    1. There’s a third sotol species that’s native to a corner of Texas: Dasylirion leiophyllum. I didn’t mention it here, but from what I’ve read, it has the advantage for gardeners of being a slightly smaller plant. As I recall, it gets about three feet tall. I was surprised to read that sotols are cold hardy, too, and can take temperatures down to -20F. I presume they don’t like it for days on end, but this one did make it through that ghastly February freeze, when it got down to 16F at the refuge.

  5. Now THAT is something! It’s enormous and so beautiful. I love how it wraps itself around the stalk and that’s a big stalk! How fortunate you were to capture these, especially since their bloom schedule is erratic. Isn’t it great when you are in the right place at the right time?

    1. It seems strange to say so, but I’ve wondered if I didn’t almost miss it because it was so large. I’m accustomed to looking up at trees, but not at plants. I wonder if something can be too big to see? At any rate, I finally spotted it. I didn’t have a clue at the time what it was, but once I figured it out, it was the ‘catch of the day.’ I really was taken with the stalk, too. I wondered (and haven’t yet found out) whether the stalks have been used for musical instruments, like bamboo.

  6. The ladder you mentioned would have been helpful, given that sotol is so tall. Any idea how this out-of-its-range specimen got where it is? Sotol has become a common landscaping plant in Austin.

    1. Have you seen stalks like this in Austin? I read that there’s another species (D. leiophyllum) that’s often used in landscapes because it’s smaller; the bloom stalk isn’t so dramatic, but it tucks into a yard more easily.

      I’ve come to realize that this one was planted by the people responsible for the landscaping around the Discovery Center at the refuge; at least, that’s my assumption. It’s at the end of those beds you first see when you drive into the parking area; there are other yuccas with it, Mexican olive, and Anacacho, or orchid tree. It might be a kind of demonstration plot, since all of those are native to Texas, but not local.

    1. I gave that last photo a quarter-turn, just to see what it looked like, and it seemed so much like a bouquet in a vase, I decided to present it that way. It’s crossed my mind to wonder what they’re going to do with that stalk when the bloom is over and it’s just standing there drying. At the Mission at Goliad, they just chopped down their century plants and threw the stalks away. I’d love to get my hands on this one; I hear they make great vanished walking sticks.

    1. It does have a grass-like appearance. As a matter of fact, it’s in the same family as one of my favorite grasses: Nolina texana, or Texas bear grass. the bear grass structure is much the same as sotols, but it’s shorter, with more slender leaves and delicate blooms — like this.

  7. Such an interesting plant, and quite beautiful. I was unfamiliar with it, but will make a point to learn a little more about it. I am unlikely to see it, but that makes it no less appealing.

    1. There are a number of other Sotol species in Mexico, but we only have three native species, with a very limited range. The liquor known as sotol has been distilled from the plant for centuries, and I finally tried it. Like mezcal and tequila, it works nicely in mixed drinks (like the Margarita), but there are some who prefer it straight. I’m not up to that.

      Even though I now realize that I’ve been around Sotol for years, this is the first bloom I’ve seen. It was a great experience.

    1. It’s so different from the yucca blooms I’m familiar with; it’s more akin to the flowers of various Nolina species, like Nolina texana. It’s always such fun to meet a new species, and when it happens without formal introductions, it’s even better!

  8. We inherited a yucca at the 1st property we owned and it was needle-sharp on the ends of the foliage, is the Texas Sotol foliage also like spears?! Btw, I really love your photos!!!

    1. It does have spear-like tips, but the edges aren’t exactly benign. You can see them here. As a couple of people noted, they most resemble a saw; combine those edges with the intention of a ten year old boy, and there could be trouble.

    1. That last photo does have a bit of a Medusa-like quality, doesn’t it? Just for fun, I gave it a quarter turn from horizontal, and liked the effect. It looks rather like flowers in a vase, or a collection of suddenly freed earthworms.

    1. Believe me, Laurie, that’s close to what a certain Texan said when she saw it. It’s one of those plants that’s common enough in its native environment, but quite a surprise when discovered elsewhere.

  9. Wow, Linda. You really brought sotol blooms to life for me. I have never paid attention to it in the past, but those blossoms are absolutely fantastic. Now I am on a mission to find some and look in person!

    1. What a great thing to say, Loretta. I think we’ve all that that experience of seeing something that’s just part of our scenery with a stranger’s eyes, or suddenly seeing something — plant, bird, whatever — in a new way. That’s why I love my macro lens as I do. There are things all around us that I’d never seen. I sure wish I could have used my macro with this gem, but as I noted, I didn’t have a ladder, and I’ve not worked out levitation yet.

    1. Well, your yucca never would have looked exactly like this, since yucca and sotol are different plants — but it sure is easy to confuse them. A friend came up with a description of a basic difference that seemed ‘on point’ to me: yucca leaves, with their pointy ends, are like swords, and sotol, with rows of sharp hooks along the sides of its leaves, is more like a hacksaw! Both of them can be problematic in a yard, that’s for sure.

    1. West Texas is the land of ‘weird’ plants: cacti, yuccas, agaves, and this one. I’m sure this one was planted as a specimen plant in the refuge’s landscaping; the appearance of the bloom was a happy bonus.

  10. Where’s a stepladder when you need one? Even a selfie stick might have helped. I’m thinking there’s a house on display at the National Ranching Heritage Center that uses sotol stalks in the roof.

    1. I suspect a selfie stick would have been too wobbly. Of course, me on a stepladder might have been too wobbly, too. Better to use a long lens, and hope for the best. It would have been fine, had there been some sunshine, but the gloom level was pretty high.

      It’s interesting that you mentioned the Ranching Heritage Center. I just learned about it a few weeks ago. A cabin that was on the El Capote ranch in the 1800s was moved up there, and the Center went on my list of places to visit if I ever land in the neighborhood.

  11. Lack of blue sky notwithstanding, nor ladder notwithstanding upon, you made the most of this opportunity and I really enjoyed the close ups when clicking for a larger image. I wonder if a little birdie planted that Sotol where you found it since it is unlikely for it to have grown there on its own.

    1. I’m sure it was planted by those responsible for the landscaping around the refuge’s Discovery Center. There are a couple of beds that contain other Texas natives that aren’t naturally found in our area, like Mexican olive. I suspect they might have been planted as specimens for educational purposes, but I don’t know that for sure. I should email the refuge’s botanist, or one of the people in the volunteer group; they might have the answer.

    1. At this point, I’m sure I’ve been around this plant more often than I knew. Without the bloom, it’s easily confused with yucca species, especially at a distance. Since it blooms irregularly, it would be easy to miss the flowers — which I obviously have, for several years.

    1. I’m sure some gardener had a hand in this one’s appearance outside of its natural range. The plant, of course, was responsible for producing that magnificent bloom. I still can’t quite get over how tall it was. I suppose there are plenty of these blooms out west, but it was quite an unusual treat for the coastal plain.

    1. At this point, I’m just glad I got a photo of the bloom stalk. I went back the next weekend to see if I could get some bluer sky photos, and see how things were developing. Whoops! The stalk was gone. I have no idea if it was vandalized, taken down by refuge staff, or broke under its own weight. It wasn’t cleanly cut, so it might have just gone over.

  12. Your macro of the bloom stalk is quite impressive. So beautiful with gorgeous colors. The name of this plant is similar to a med that I take which is supposed to help keep my heart rate in proper rhythm. My med is called sotolol.

    1. I got distracted last night, and went off on a search to see if there was any connection between the plant and your medication. It seems not, although I couldn’t find the reason for the drug’s name. I’m certainly glad I got these photos. When I went back a week later to see if I could get some photos against a blue sky, the stalk had been removed. I haven’t been able to find the reason. It wasn’t cleanly cut, so it may have broken under its own weight.

      1. I have often wondered how medications are named of there is a person or committee that selects the brand name and the scientific name. I know that sotolol is in a class of meds that is akin to an antihypertensive med called metropolol which I took years ago but stopped taking because it caused my feet and ankles to swell.

        1. I really don’t know. I do remember one that was named after a person: the Salk polio vaccine. I suppose any company that comes up with a new one gets to name it — at least the brand names — but it’s enough for me to learn their names, let alone figure out how they got them!

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