By Rick LoBello, Education Curator
If you were traveling across the country at night and woke up in the morning and saw lechuguilla growing on a mountain side, you would know one thing for sure, you were in the Chihuahuan Desert. Lechuguilla is what some botanists call an indicator species. Indicator species can serve as measures of environmental conditions that exist in a given area, or as indicators of a particular eco-region. For example, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona the giant saguaro cactus is an indicator plant of the Sonoran Desert, like the Joshua Tree is an indicator plant of California’s Mojave Desert.
Lechuguilla is in a very unique family of succulent plants called the Agaves. Unlike all the other sharp pointed plants in the desert, the life cycle of the lechuguilla, like its cousin the century plant, is very different from all the other large flowering plants out there. When you walk into the desert and see lechuguilla you will see individual plants in one of three different stages of life. The first stage is the most common where all you see is the sharp pointed green leaves of the plant with no flower stalk. Some people say that the lechuguilla in this stage resembles an upside-down bunch of green bananas. The second stage is where a lechuguilla is growing a flower stalk and getting ready to bloom for the first time, or recently has bloomed (April to August). The last stage in the plant’s life cycle is a dead lechuguilla with or without a dry flower stalk.
Right now, if you will go out into the desert and look for lechuguilla chances are pretty good you are going to find some plants with flower stalks. What is so special about this plant is how it flowers only once in its life cycle and then the entire plant, leaves and all, dies. Depending on soil conditions and rainfall, a lechuguilla can take anywhere from 3 years to 30 years to store up enough energy to finally grow its flower stalk. And when the flower stalk starts growing the stalk can reach 16 feet tall and grow at a rate of almost an 8” per day. If you sit next to one through the day, you can almost watch it grow!
Lechuguilla have sharp pointed leaves that can really hurt if the tips get lodged into your skin. You really need to be careful when you walk through an area with lots of lechuguilla. Amazingly, the sharp pointed leaves are eaten by both mule deer and javelina who will pull the leaves apart and eat the meaty portion at the base.
If ever there ever was a plant that symbolized the Chihuahuan Desert, and all the amazing plants and animals that live here, my vote would definitely go to the lechuguilla.
Cover image on April 29, 2020 – close up of ocotillo flower bud
All photos by Rick LoBello