Plants Often Mistaken for Cactus

There are several plants that are often mistaken as cactus. Some that are confused include beargrass and several other varieties of agave, different species of yuccas, the 'yucca look-alike' - sotol, and ocotillo. All of these plants are found in desert and scrubland landscapes; however, some species are not limited to those harsh environments.

For example, beargrass (Nolina microcarpa) is found in the Southwest from Texas to Arizona. Related beargrass species (Xerophyllum tenax) are also abundant in the subalpine meadows and dry, high forests of California's Sierra Mountains northward to the eastern Cascades and Olympic Mountains in Washington state.

Yucca, White Sands National Monument, NM

Beargrass. This plant's name probably relates to the unpleasant 'bearlike' odor of its flowers. The white flowers are individually small, but clustered together into a bottlebrush cluster at the stem tip. Beargrass is also called Indian basket grass because its tough fibrous leaves were once used by Native Americans to weave baskets. The leaves are still sometimes collected for making brooms. But it is not a grass! The bases of the Beargrass leaf are attached to the stem in closepacked overlapping spirals. The produces a rosette leaf formation that hints of its true classification as a member of the agave family. Among its close plant relatives are other agaves, yucca, and sotol.

Beargrass grows around the upper margin of the desert. Its leaves are finely serrated along the edges; they can inflict painful injuries on unwary fingers, especially when the plant is dry. The plant rosettes often make dense, fountainlike clumps on canyon slopes and hillsides. The rosette rises from a creeping stem that partly extends down into the soil. Wildfires sometimes sweep through the grass-like leaves and char the aboveground stem, but since the growing point is protected underground, the plant recovers and new leaves soon appear.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax)
Mescal (Agave parryi)
Century Plant (Agave deserti)

There are at least ten species of the genus agave (pronounced ah GAH vee) in Southwest United States. Agaves are a large group of rosette-forming succulent plants. They are usually short-stemmed, although some species can form stems up to 3 feet high. Agaves are mostly native of Mexico, though some are found wild in the United States and the West Indies.

Agaves were one of the most important plant groups for Indian tribes, second only to yuccas. They were a major source for both food and fiber. Agave fibers were used to make many needed items such as brushes, bowstrings, nets, slings, shoes, rope, and thread. Leaves were first soaked, then pounded to release their fibers. The fibers were next dried and then combed to separate the threads. Almost all parts of the agave, leaves, flower, stalk, blossoms, and seeds, can be eaten. Agave leaves were collected and roasted in pits. But uncooked, the leaves of some agave species are poison. Indians of the Chihuahuan Desert used the juice from the lechuigilla (Agave lechugilla) to poison their arrow tips.

The century plant, also called desert agave, spends most of its life as a rosette, a cluster of basal leaves. Characteristic of other agaves, its flowering is delayed. But in this case, it could be as long as thirty years - - but not even close to its erroneously labeled century. When it does flower, the stalk erupts from the center of the rosette and grows at an astonishing rate, two and one-half inches each day, until it reaches five to fifteen feet in height. The plant then blooms for several weeks and then dies. The plant's death is largely due to expending its supply of water and plant food resources to grow the flower stalk. Therefore it has to die, but not before its flowers have been pollinated and up to 65,000 seeds have been propagated.

The century plant is an enormous food and water source for desert life. During the driest months of the year, its leaves are often the only water source for many bighorn sheep. The yellow flowers that bloom May to July when few other plants flower provide nectar for hummingbirds and insects. The plant provides food for the caterpillar of giant skipper butterfly, and carpenter bees make their home by tunneling into the pithy flower stalk.

Narrow-leaved Yucca (Yucca glauca)
Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)
Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata)

Yucca. Yucca (pronounced YUHK uh) is the name of another plant group within the agave family that has been described as a bush-like palm tree. Leaves of the yucca are usually pointed, stiff, and narrow, with sawlike or fibrous edges. The leaves grow along the stem or in clusters at the end of a stem. The yucca plant is an evergreen shrub that does not shed its leaves each year. Some have short stems and others have tall woody and scaly trunks.

Yucca plants have bell-shaped flowers. Flower color varies from white, cream-color, or whitish-green for different species. These flowers grow in a cluster on a stem which springs up from the center of a leaf-cluster. Some yucca flowers give off a strong fragrance when they open at night. Pollination is completed by the female yucca moth which moves from one plant to another carrying along pollen. Yuccas also bear large fruits that can either be fleshy or dry and contain many flat, black seeds.

Yuccas were the most important plant for Native Americans in the Southwest. They provided food, fiber, and soap plus served roles in ceremonial functions. Soap and shampoo qualities come from the root ingredient, saponin. Its detergent qualities were gained by pounding yucca roots in water to produce copious suds. Indians also used the fiber-producing qualities of yucca. Whole leaves were used for construction bindings. Individual fibers were produced by soaking leaves in water, then pounding them with wooden clubs on flat rocks. Rinsing away the softened pulp left tough fiber filaments that were twisted together into threads. Yucca fiber and threads were used to construct sandals, ropes, mats, clothing, nets, hairbrushes, mattresses, and baskets. Parts of the yucca plant, the flower stalks, blossoms, and seeds, were a food source. Fruits of the banana yucca were eaten raw, baked, boiled, dried, or ground into meal. Sun-dried pulp from the fruits was kneaded into cakes and stored for winter use.

Yuccas grow abundantly in the southern and southwestern areas of the United States and also in the desert highlands and plateaus of Mexico. At least fifteen species of yucca can be found within the deserts of the United States. Most are low plants or shrubs, but there are several species that become large, like picturesque trees. Included is the largest variety, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia).

Early Mormon settlers gave the Joshua Tree its name because the plants seemed to lift up their arms like the Biblical Joshua. Joshua trees reach thirty to forty feet high and may spread to twenty feet. As they age, they branch abundantly and the oldest of these plants may be two hundred years or older. It is difficult to estimate their age because the fibrous trunks do not form annual growth rings.

Joshua trees are home to many different species of birds including Scott's orioles that hang their nests from the short, stiff leaves. Northern flickers excavate their nest holes into the fibrous trunks and after they leave, other birds take up residence. Fallen branches and trunks are consumed by termites as they decay. And the termites are eaten by the night lizard, a reptile that lives underneath the cover of the Joshua tree bark.

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

Joshua trees are found on the desert plains and gentle slopes of southern California, western Arizona, and southern Nevada.

Sotol. Sotol is an agave species that is frequently mistaken for its close relative, yucca. Sotol is sometimes called 'desert spoon' because of the shape of its enlarged bases of the long serrated leaves. Those sawtoothed, ribbon-like leaves and tiny flowers clustered on its tall spike stalks distinguish it form the yucca's smooth-edged leaves and bell-like blossoms. The tall, thick flowering stalks elongate in late spring and bloom from May to August. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. They wind pollinate and papery-shelled, winged seeds ripen and are dispersed by the wind. Species of sotol are found in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the United States and also in Mexico.

Indians ate the immature flower stalk after first roasting it in stone-line pits. The leaves were stripped of thorns and woven into baskets, mats, and thatch. Leaf fibers were used for sandals, coarse ropes, and other items.

Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)
Ocotillo leaves
Ocotillo flowers
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

During most of the year, the long stems of the ocotillo are bare except for the rigid gray spines. However this plant's appearance changes overnight after a good rainstorm. Under the dead looking waxy gray surface, ocotillo stems are capable of enough photosynthesis to enable leafing out quickly after rains. Tiny new leaf buds spring up along the stems and within five days, the leaves expand to their full growth. In five weeks, the leaves turn yellow and drop to the ground. Such is the quick life-cycle for this part of the Ocotillo, but during that short time the leaves utilize the soil moisture to produce the plant-sugars needed for growth. Depending on the amount and number of rains, ocotillo may gain and lose their leaves three, four, or more times a year.

Ocotillo flowers, blood-red and densely clustered, appear at the stem tips in March and April. They are a major food source for hummingbirds during their northward migration. Lots of other birds and insects also visit the flowers. Ocotillo produce flat, featherlight seeds in abundance during May and June. Many of those seeds germinate during the summer monsoon season, July and August, but few if any survive until the following summer. Those that do live to their second year have a good chance of living up to two centuries. Ocotillo grows to a height of twenty or thirty feet. These unusual desert plants are found abundantly from southern California to western Texans and south into Mexico.

More Information: If you want to learn more about some of these plants, visit the following websites:

Try a webquest activity.

Note: All photographs taken with a digital camera in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington.
Developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 05/02.