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Shin Dagger, Lechuguilla. Photo: Dave Whitinger, All Things Plants, via Wikimedia Commons. Released under the GFDL.

This episode of Nature Notes was previously broadcast on July 7, 2009, and was written by Alpine resident Gary Nored. 

In the seventeenth century, Spanish explorers complained that because of this plant they couldn’t travel at night. The nineteenth century Texas rangers, who wrote that in Texas everything stings, scratches or bites, certainly had this little plant in mind.  Today, hikers and horseback riders alike fear and loathe it. One of the biggest horticultural sites on the web, describes it as a “vicious looking spiny plant, a nasty looking plant, that quickly suckers to make a nasty looking hedge.”  With so many stickery, spiny plants in the Chihuahuan Desert, how can just one of them deserve such a reputation?

Well, the complainers have good cause in this case. The 12-18 in tall lechuguilla is one of the most abundant plants in the Chihuahuan Desert.  It frequently grows in almost impenetrable thickets, and its stiff, inwardly curved spines are capable of piercing skin, leather and even off-road vehicle tires.

If you’ve ever stepped in one, you understand firsthand how the curvature of the spine helps it  dig deep into your calf, how its backwardly aimed side spines make it difficult to get free, and how its deep puncture wound hurts like the dickens and can take months to heal.

But lechuguilla is not all bad. Like its other agave brethren, it stays green year-round. When it’s old enough, it sends up a flower stalk 10-15 feet off the ground that’s covered with lovely wine and yellow-colored flowers.

When it blooms, it hosts countless pollinating insects, including the Coahuila giant skipper butterfly that relies on it entirely. After flowering, the remaining stalk is one of the few viable alternatives to wood to be found in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Besides being beautiful, lechuguilla is also useful. Lechuguilla has been harvested for its tough fibers for ten thousand years. Native tribes used it for everything from baskets to sandals, and today thousands of peasants in Mexico make their living gathering and processing it.

Lechuguilla fiber, called Ixtle in Mexico, is often referred to as Mexico’s natural wonder, in recognition of its exceptional characteristics. Used as bristles and brushes, this fiber has proven its distinct worth, possessing exceptional water retention characteristics, excellent biodegradability, and superior heat and chemical resistance. Most of the brushes, insulation fiber, matting, bags, coursed twine and rope produced in northeastern Mexico today, are still made from lechuguilla fiber.

Though the fiber has long been supplanted by synthetics in the US, it’s again becoming more valuable, as people search for more sustainable and natural products. You’ll find Ixtle fiber brushes of many kinds for sale on the web, and your local health food store may carry a lechuguilla-based shampoo, that’s reputed to leave hair soft and lustrous. Cattle and deer browse the plant, but only under duress, as most of the plant is poisonous.

Native Americans used the juice on poisoned arrow tips, and poured it into ponds to stun fish, and make them easy to net. Nevertheless, the plant can be processed to make it safe. Today, it’s used to make sports drinks and alcoholic beverages. It’s also being studied as a source of cortisone-like substances.

As more and more people turn to natural fibers in preference to artificial ones, we can expect to see an increasing number of products containing this wonderful fiber. Nevertheless, this plant will always remain one of those “look, but do not touch” members of the Chihuahuan Desert community.

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