Plants Often Mistaken for Cactus

Some plants are often mistaken as cactus. These include beargrass, agave, yuccas, sotol, and ocotillo. All of these plants are found in the desert and scrubland.


Yucca, White Sands National Monument, NM

Beargrass. Beargrass is found in the Southwest United States. It is also found in the mountains and high forests of the Northwest US. Some people say that beargrass flowers smells like bears. The small flowers are clustered at the stem tip. They look like a bottlebrush.

Beargrass is also called Indian basket grass because the tough leaves were used by Native Americans to weave baskets. Some people still use the leaves for brooms.

Beargrass is not grass. It is actually in the agave family.

Beargrass grows in the hills of the desert. The edge of the leaves are finely serrated. They can cut the skin and hurt like a paper cut.

Beargrass recovers quickly after a fire.

Century Plant

Agave. There are at least ten types of agave (pronounced ah GAH vee) in Southwest United States. They are also found in Mexico.

Agaves are a large group of rosette-forming, succulent plants. They are usually short-stemmed. However, they can be up to 3 feet high.

Agaves were one of the most important plant groups for Indian tribes. They were a major source for both food and fiber. Agave fibers were used to make brushes, bowstrings, nets, slings, shoes, rope, and thread. The agave leaves, flower, stalk, blossoms, and seeds can be eaten. They must be cooked. The leaves of some agave species are poison. Some Indians used the juice from the lechuigilla agave to poison their arrow tips.

The century plant, also called desert agave, spends most of its life as a rosette, a cluster of leaves. It takes as long as thirty years for it to flower. It does not take a century or 100 years. When it does flower, a stalk grows very fast. It grows as much as two and one-half inches each day, until it reaches five to fifteen feet in height. It takes a lot of water to grow the flower. It blooms several weeks and then dies. The flower sends out 65,000 seeds before dying.

The century plant is a food and water source for desert life. Its leaves may be the only water source for many bighorn sheep. The yellow flowers provide nectar for birds and insects in summer.

Narrow-leaved yucca
Banana yucca
Soaptree yucca

Yucca. Yucca (pronounced YUHK uh) is a plant group in the agave family. Some yucca look like small palm trees. The leaves are usually pointed, stiff, and narrow. The yucca plant does not shed its leaves each year.

Yucca plants have bell-shaped flowers. Flower color varies from white, cream-color, or whitish-green for different kinds. These flowers grow in a cluster that grows from the center. Some yucca flowers open at night and have a strong smell. Yuccas have large fruit that can either be wet or dry. The fruit have many flat, black seeds.

Yuccas were the most important plant for Native Americans in the Southwest. They provided food, fiber, and soap. They were also used in ceremonies. Soap and shampoo come from pounding the root. Indians used the fibers to build things such as sandals, ropes, mats, clothing, nets, hairbrushes, mattresses, and baskets. The yucca was also used as food.

Yuccas grow in the southern and southwestern areas of the United States and also in Mexico. Most yucca are low plants, but some are like trees. The Joshua tree is the largest. They can be forty feet tall and twenty wide. They can be over 100 years old.

Joshua trees are found in the deserts of southern California, western Arizona, and southern Nevada.

Many birds live in Joshua trees. Termites and lizards live in the fallen branches and trunks.

Joshua Tree

Sotol. Sotol is an agave. They look like a yucca. The sotol has sawtoothed leaves, while the yucca's are smooth. The sotol has tiny flowers on its tall spike stalks, while the yucca has bell-like blossoms. The sotol stalks bloom in summer.

Indians ate the flower stalk. The leaves were stripped of thorns and woven into baskets, mats, and thatch. Leaf fibers were used for sandals and ropes.

Ocotillo leaves
Ocotillo flowers

Ocotillo. The Ocotillo has rigid gray spines and grows up to thirty feet tall. During most of the year, the long stems of the ocotillo look bare. However with a good rainstorm, bright green leaves emerge. After awhile, the leaves turn yellow and fall to the ground. This can happen many times during the year. The red clusters of flowers appear in spring. Many birds and insects visit the flowers.

Ocotillo have flat, light seeds. Few seeds survive. The plants that make it can live up to 200 years.

They are found in Texas and the southwest US and Mexico.

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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.