So Long Sotols…In the Spirit of Plant Extinction

We’ve long been enamored with the Southwest native genus of slow-growing woody lilies belonging to the genus, Dasylirion. Since the early 1990s, we’ve been growing these, trialing as many species as we could obtain to see how well they adapted to our climate here in the colder, wetter Southeast.

Image of Dasylirion wheeleri in situ, Payson, Arizona
Dasylirion wheeleri in situ, Payson, Arizona

So, far, we have grown 16 of the 21 recognized species and succeeded with 12. We found four unable to survive our coldest winters, including Dasylirion durangensis, Dasylirion longissimum, Dasylirion lucidum, Dasylirion sereke.

The five species we have yet to try in the garden are Dasylirion graminifolium, Dasylirion longistylum, Dasylirion micropterum, Dasylirion palaciosii, and Dasylirion simplex. We have seed planted of both Dasylirion graminfolium and micropterum, so those will be next in line for our in ground trials. That leaves us still searching for seed of the final three.

Sotols, like agaves, are members of the Asparagus family. They are becoming wildly popular, but not because of gardeners. Instead, their popularity is driven by those who are driven by a need/desire to imbibe alcoholic spirits. First, there was Mescal, a Mexican drink made from one of a number of different agave species, depending on what grew in proximity to each village. Of the Mescals, the most popular is Tequilla, which is made from a single species, Agave tequiliana.

Now, Sotol alcohol has joined the ranks of the “hot new spirits”. Made from agave’s cousin, plants of the genus Dasylirion, Sotol is rapidly becoming the new “flavor of the month”. Sotol alcohol certainly isn’t new, and if you regularly travel south of “the wall” you probably already know that Sotol is the state drink of Mexican states Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango.

Not so long ago, Sotol alcohol had a history that somewhat parallels moonshine in the Southeast US. For years, Sotol alcohol was illegal and subject to government raids, during which master sotoleros were punished or imprisoned. During the US prohibition of the 1920s, Sotol sales in the US skyrocketed, but soon after its repeal, Sotol sales plummeted back into obscurity. Now, with not only social acceptance, but a wide wide embrace of virtually anything that can be used to produce alcohol, Sotol has been mainstreamed with the assistance of the Mexican government and willing marketers.

Most agaves for Tequila production are now commercially grown in massive farms, and most plants are now produced from tissue culture for a more consistent yield and to take pressure off wild popuations. Even under ideal farming conditions, it take 5-7 years to get an agave large enough to harvest for tequilla production. With dasylirions, the same process takes at least 12-15 years according to Sotol marketers. Based on our 30 years of work with the genus, I’d say the time involved is more likely 24-30 years, even in a high rainfall climate like ours.

I’m not aware of many farm operations that can afford to grow a plant for that long before expecting a return on investment. This means that poaching of plants from the wild is very likely to increase. With such a low rate of return, i.e. 1 pint of liquor for each plant harvested, I can’t see the plants coming out on the good end of this industry. While making alcohol from dasylirions isn’t new, it’s been done on a very limited scale in Mexico, prior to word spreading around the world via social media.

Reportedly Sotol spirits taste quite different based on the species used, and whether it’s from an exceptionally dry region or an area with better rainfall. Sotol conniseurs describe the tastes as being a bit like menthol or pine/mushrooms if the plants are grown well hydrated, while those from drier regions taste more like leather. To quote Dave Barry, “I’m not making this up!” And this sounds appealing to who???

Supposedly, the spirit producers are cutting off the wild dasylirions and leaving the bases to resprout, but I’ve got my doubts about how well that works. Assuming the cut dasylirion does resprout, there will be a decade of lost seed production, so plant populations in the wild are almost certain to decline. I’m left to wonder if we really are so desperate for a new taste in alcohol that we are willing to sacrifice another genus of plants in the process.

In celebration of these amazing plants, here are photos of those we have grown in our ex-situ conservation gardens at JLBG.

Dasylirion acrotrichum, named in 1843, is native to Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert. Of the seven plants we planted, only one survived, which is now over 20 years old. This widespread sotol, which occurs on igneous soils, has been split by various authors into several subspecies. Undoubtedly, winter hardiness varies based on the seed procurement location. At maturity, the trunks can reach 5′ tall.

Image of Dasylirion acrotrichum
Dasylirion acrotrichum

Dasylirion berlandieri, named after French/Mexican naturalist, Jean-Louis Berlandier (1803-1851), was first published in 1879. Native to steep rocky hillsides in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in Northeastern Mexico, it’s one of the largest species in the genus in width, but with a trunk that never exceeds 1′ in height. Below is our plant in bud. Unlike agaves, dasylirion rosettes do not die after flowering.

Dasylirion berlandieri

Below is a fully open flower spike, which is abuzz with a large number of bees

Dasylirion berlandieri in full flower

Dasylirion cedrosanum, first documented in 1911, hails from 3,000′ – 6,000′ elevation on rocky, gypsum-laced hillsides in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. They are restricted to the Mexican states of Chihuhua, Coahuilla, and Durango. At maturity, they produce a 3′ tall trunk.

Dasylirion cedrosanum

Dasylirion durangensis is another species first described in 1911, which hails from the dry alkaline/limestone-gypsum deserts of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas. In parts of its range, it interbreeds with Dasylirion wheeleri. We flowered this prior to losing it during a particularly cold winter. Below is our Obit photo.

Dasylirion durangensis

Dasylirion gentry was only published as a species in 1998. It has a very limited range between 3,500′ – 4,000′ in Sonora, Mexico, where it grows on rocky slopes in openings of pine/oak woodlands.

Dasylirion gentryi

The inflorescense of Dasylirion gentryi is one of the most spectacular we’ve ever seen.

Dasylirion gentryi bloom spike

Dasylirion glaucophyllum is a species whose discovery dates back to 1858. It can be found naturally, only in Sonora, Mexico, growing on rocky hillsides at elevations to almost 8,000′. At maturity, trunks measure up to 6′ in height.

Dasylirion glaucophyllum

Dasylirion leiophyllum, published in 1911, only grows north of Mexican border in Texas and New Mexico. Based on where it grows, it should be one of the most winter hardy sotol species. The first photo is at JLBG, and the second in situ at 5,400′ elevation. The second image is from the late plantsman, David Salman, of a Zone 5 population he discovered and shared seed with us just prior to his untimely death. Plant Delights is currently offering this as Dasylirion leiophyllum ‘Chaves’.

Dasylirion leiophyllum – in winter at JLBG
Dasylirion leiophyllum ‘Chaves’ in situ at 5,400′ elevation

Dasylirion miquihuanense, only described in 1998, hails from Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in Northeastern Mexico. Also occurring on rocky slopes, this sotol is one of the tallest species, producing massive 8′ tall trunks. We have succeeded long term with only 2 of 8 specimens we planted.

Dasylirion miquihuanense

Dasylirion parryanum, published in that banner year of 1911, hails from up to 8,000′ elevation in the San Luis Potosi State in Northern Mexico, where it produces 3′ tall trunks.

Dasylirion parryanum

Dasylirion quadrangulatum (1879) hails from the Southern (warmer) end of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. It is much too tender for us to grow in the open here in Zone 7b, but we’ve kept it alive for a couple of decades by siting it in a microclimate adjacent to a brick wall house foundation. It is one of only two species lacking leaf spines. With great age, it produces trunks to 9′ in height.

Dasylirion quadrangulatum

Dasylirion serratifolium, first described in 1838, is from Oaxaca, Mexico, where is grows on rocky, alkaline hillsides to 6,600′ elevation. The location and elevation means it really shouldn’t survive our winter. That said, our only remaining specimen below is now 20 years old, but is still far from reaching the 6′ tall trunk height it does in the wild.

Dasylirion serratifolium

Dasylirion texanum (1850) is another very winter hardy species, found on rocky slopes, ranging from Central Texas into the mountains of Northern Mexico. It is one of the shortest species, with a trunk that doesn’t exceed 1′ tall.

Dasylirion texanum

Dasylirion wheeleri, first documented in 1878, ranges from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico south into the mountains of Northern Mexico. It matures at 6′ tall, and in situ, can be found in both grasslands as well as openings in pine/oak forests. It is another of the most cold hardy species.

Dasylirion wheeleri

An old clump we planted years ago in flower is quite remarkable.

Dasylirion wheeleri in flower

We hope you’ll limit your consumption of Sotol as a drink and instead join us in becoming an ex-situ conservation garden for this amazing genus of plants.

Green Goblet

Looking great in the garden this week is Agave x pseudoferox ‘Green Goblet’. This 1996 introduction from the former Yucca Do Nursery is one they found in Mexico and brought back as a single pup. Our original plant flowered in 2011 after 11 years in the ground, so this specimen has re-grown from one of the remaining small pups. Since we’re now at 11 years since last flowering, we’re preparing for a new blessed event. Since we can usually tell by now if it’s expecting, which it is not, the odds are pretty good for a 2024 flowering. Plant Delights Nursery will be offering A. ‘Green Goblet’ for sale in 2023.

An 11 year old plant of Agave x pseudoferox 'Green Goblet'.
Agave x pseudoferox ‘Green Goblet’

Excelsior…Fit for a King

Here’s a new photo of Agave parryi ssp. huachucensis ‘Excelsior’ from our garden this week. We typically don’t have many variegated century plants that will survive our winters, but this is one of the exceptions. This superb clone was first introduced in 1967 from a small California nursery by the same name. Protection from excess winter moisture and exceptional drainage is always the key in cold, wet winter climates. This particular planting is under a roof overhang. Hardiness zone 7b to 9b.

Agave parryi ‘Excelsior’

Golden Limo

Looking wonderful in the fall garden is the evergreen Choisya ‘Limo’, known commercially as Goldfingers choisya. This gold-leaved selection is from a cross of two Southwest US native shrubs, Choisya arizonica and Choisya ternata, subsequently referred to as Choisya x dewitteana. The genus Choisya is named to honor the late Swiss botanist/philosophy professor Jacques Denis Choisy (1799-1859) This gold-foliaged selection from the UK’s Peter Moore forms a 3′ tall shrub in 5 years.

The fragrant white clusters of axillary flowers adorn the plant starting in April (NC). We have our specimen planted in a full sun rock garden, where it thrives in very well-drained soils. Hardiness is Zone 6a-9b.

Image of the evergreen Choisya x dewitteana 'Limo'
Choisya x dewitteana ‘Limo’

Cow Tongue Takes a Lickin’

The gigantic, winter hardy, North American native, cow tongue cactus, Opuntia lindheimeri ‘Linguiformis’ is looking wonderful in the fall garden. We planted our original plant back in 2000, but when reworking a bed, needed to move it about 4 years ago. We took a couple of pad cuttings which languished, laying bare root on a bench for nearly 2 years. Despite this abuse, this is the result two years after those cuttings finally went in the ground. We find this to be the largest of the Zone 7 winter hardy prickly pear cactus, maturing around 7′ tall x 12′ wide. Winter hardiness is at least Zone 7b-10b, and perhaps colder.

 Opuntia lindheimeri 'Linguiformis' (Cow Tongue Cactus)
Opuntia lindheimeri ‘Linguiformis’

Agave ‘Prince of Whales’

Our 2016 century plant hybrid is looking quite lovely in the garden this month. This plant, which we named Agave x victorifolia ‘Prince of Whales’, is a hybrid of the Whale’s tongue century plant, Agave ovatifolia (male parent), and the Queen Victoria century plant, Agave victoriae-reginae (female parent).

Since both parents are non-offsetting, this means that the offspring will grow to maturity, flower, then die. Consequently, in order to be able to propagate and share, we will have to drill out the central core of the plant to trick in to offset. While this ruins the appearance of the original, it’s the only way for this to ever be shared and preserved. This plant has been in the ground since 2018, so we expect to have another eight years (guessing) prior to flowering. Consequently, so we’ll probably gamble on waiting a few more years before performing surgery. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-10b.

Agave x victorifolia Prince of Whales
Agave x victorifolia ‘Prince of Whales’

Below is a photo of both parents.

Agave ovatifolia
Agave ovatifolia
Agave victoriae-reginae
Agave victoriae-reginae

The Look of Love

If you’re able to visit during this years spring open house, it will be hard to miss the look of love in the air. We have a record 20 century plants in spike in the garden…a number far surpassing any flowering record we’ve set previously.

Agaves are a genus of mostly monocarpic plants…they live their entire lives to flower once, then after experiencing a giant-sized orgasm, they fall over dead. In the wild, many species take up to 100 years to flower, which is why the name century plant stuck as a common name. In our more rainy climate, our century plants typically flower in 12-15 years. Several of our current crop are actually less than a decade old, but their enormous size has already been achieved, so they’re ready to reproduce.

Some species of agaves offset, and in this case, only then central rosette dies, and the offsets continue as is the case with bromeliads. Those agave species which never offset are one-and-dones, but hopefully will leave behind a plethora of seed for the next generation. From the start of the spikes to full flower is usually about 8 weeks. Below are a few of our babies in spike.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’
Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’
Agave lophantha JLBG-01
Agave x loferox JLBG-014
Agave x pseudoferox JLBG-176

Agave frog

Since we’ve been growing agaves, one of the most fascinating things we’ve noticed is the incredible attraction of tree frogs and Carolina anoles to their leaf texture. There is hardly a day that goes by that we don’t spot one or the other, nestled on an agave leaf. Here is our most recent image of our native green tree frog, Hyla cinerea, basking in the sun on an Agave parryi hybrid. Ain’t nature grand!

Tree frog chillaxin' on an Agave parryi hybrid
Tree frogs love agaves!

Mangave zombies

One of many great attributes of mangaves, compared to one of their parents, agaves, is that they don’t die after flowering. Agaves are mostly monocarpic, which mean that they behave like bromeliads, where each rosette grows to maturity, then dies after flowering. Those species of agave which offset, live on after flowering, by means of un-flowered offsets. Those agave species which don’t offset are a one and done after they flower and reproduce by reseeding.

By incorporating manfreda genes to create xMangaves, the monocarpic trait disappears. After a mangave flowers, it dies to the ground, but like a good zombie, it soon pops back from the dead. Here is a current photo from the garden of two clumps of xMangave ‘Blue Mammoth’. The first, larger clump has not flowered, but should do so next year. The second clump with all the offsets, flowered in 2020, and re-grew to this point in 2021. Next year, the rosettes will continue to re-grow in size.

Washington’s Palm ready for winter

Due to having three consecutive mild winters, with no temperatures below 20 degrees F, we’ve actually been able to get a trunk on our Washingtonia filifera palm. Typically not hardy in our climate, our plant was grown from seed collected from a wild population in Arizona that had experienced 10 degrees F. We’ll see what this winter has in store.

Sex for the Centuries

Since we are limited in the number of hardy century plant species, our only option for more agave diversity in the garden is to create it by crossing existing hardy species together. Here are a few of our recent successes.

Agave x amourifolia is a Plant Delights/JLBG creation from a cross we made in 2016 that combined the genes of three century plants, Agave ovatifolia, Agave lophantha, and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Logan Calhoun’. Our size estimates were that the offspring would mature at 3′ tall x 5′ wide. Here is one of our garden specimens photographed this week, which has already reached 2′ tall x 3′ wide.

Agave x amourifolia

Below is Agave x ovox, a 2017 cross of the two giants, Agave ovatifolia and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Bellville’. We expect this to get huge…perhaps 5′ tall x 10′ wide.

Agave x ovox ‘Large Ox’

Below is Agave x protifolia is a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave x protamericana x Agave ovatifolia. We also expect this to get quite massive.

Agave x protifolia

Below is Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’, a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave flexispina. We would have expected this to be a mature size, but it’s achieved this in only 5 years, so we think we’re seeing some serious hybrid vigor.

Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’

Below is Agave x ocareginae, our 2016 cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave victoriae-reginae. Most likely, this elegant small grower will never offset.

Agave x ocareginae

Below is Agave x schuphantha, a 2015 Mike Papay cross involving three century plant species, Agave schidigera, Agave lophantha, and Agave lechuguilla. It’s formed a beautiful, symmentrical rosette, which should be getting close to mature size.

Agave x schuphantha ‘Wheel of Fortune’