Plants Often Mistaken for Cactus

Some plants look like cactus, but they are not cactus.

People mistake beargrass, agave, yuccas, sotol, and ocotillo for cactus. All of these plants live in the desert.

Most live in the southwest United States and Mexico.


Yucca, White Sands National Monument, NM

Beargrass. Beargrass is found in deserts, hills, and some mountains. It is not grass. It is in the agave family.

People say the flowers smell like bears. The small flowers are on the top of the stem.

Native Americans used the firm leaves to weave baskets. Some people still use the leaves for brooms.

The side of the leaves are bumpy and sharp. They can cut the skin. They hurt like a paper cut.

Beargrass grows fast after a fire.

Century Plant

Agave. There are many kinds of agave. They are short, juicy plants. They grow out from the center.

Agaves were important to Indian tribes. They were a major source of food and fiber. Agave fibers were used to make brushes, nets, shoes, rope, and thread. The agave plant was also cooked and eaten. The leaves of some agave are poison. Some Indians used the juice to poison their arrows.

The century plant grows slowly for 30 years. Then, it grows a long stalk that is taller than a person. It needs lots of water. The plants flowers, spreads seeds, and dies.

Many animals get water from the century plant. Many birds and insects get food from the flower.

Narrow-leaved yucca
Banana yucca
Soaptree yucca

Yucca. Yucca (pronounced YUHK uh) are in the agave family. They look like small palm trees. The leaves are stiff and narrow. They do not fall off every year.

Yucca plants have white flowers. They grows from the center of the plant. Yuccas have large fruit with flat, black seeds.

Yuccas were the most important plant for Native Americans in the Southwest. They provided food, fiber, and soap. Indians made sandals, ropes, mats, clothing, nets, hairbrushes, and baskets. The yucca was also used as food.

Most yucca are low plants, but some are tall. The Joshua tree is the biggest and oldest. It can be over 100 years old.

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

Joshua Tree

Sotol. Sotol is an agave. They look like a yucca. The sotol has bumpy leaves. The yucca leaves are smooth. The sotol has tiny flowers. The yucca has bell-like flowers.

Indians ate the flower stalk. The leaves were made into baskets, mats, sandals, and ropes.

Ocotillo leaves
Ocotillo flowers

Ocotillo. The Ocotillo has hard, gray spines. It can grow very tall. The long stems look bare. After it rain, bright green leaves grow. Red flowers grow in spring. Many birds and insects visit the flowers.

Ocotillo have flat, light seeds. The plant can live 200 years.

More Information

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.