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.

October Flower

Raise your hand if you grow the native October Flower? Polygonella polygama is a little-known, but absolutely amazing wildflower in the Buckwheat family, suited to well-drained, sunny gardens. Although completely non-descript through spring and summer, when people are buying plants, it bursts into flower in October, also when no one is buying plants. Below is our plant strutting it stuff in one of our full sun rock gardens in mid October. Polygonella polygama is native from Virginia southwest to Texas, along the coast. Winter hardiness should be at least Zone 7b and south.

Polygonella polygama - a favorite October flower
Polygonella polygama

Cat Whiskers Cactus

Our planting of Glandulicactus wrightii is looking quite lovely as we head into fall. Sadly, few folks take time to closely examine the fascinating and intricate arrangements of cactus spines. Glandulicactus wrightii, which is native to Texas and adjacent Mexico has amazingly long, hooked spines that resemble cat whiskers. Long term winter hardiness is hopeful here in Zone 7b, since the seed from which this was grown came from a population at 5,000′ elevation on the New Mexico/Texas border.

Glandulicactus wrightii in the crevice garden
Glandulicactus wrightii

A Weeping Wonder

Few plants I’ve ever grown enchant me like Forestiera angustifolia ‘Woodlanders Weeping’. This incredible weeping selection of the Texas native is typically known as a scraggly upright bush that grows in dry alkaline soils. This special form was discovered in Calhoun County, Texas in 1992 by our friend Bob McCartney and the late Texas plantsman, Lynn Lowrey. In 1996, Bob, Lynn, and Patrick McMillan returned to the site for cuttings. It was subsequently propagated and introduced by Woodlanders Nursery. Surprisingly, it also thrives in moist acidic soils, and seemingly has no garden conditions where it doesn’t thrive.

We actually enjoy the incredible structure of the deciduous bare stems more in the winter time without the tiny deciduous foliage. The photo above was just taken at JLBG in late September. Mature size is 6′ tall x 25′ wide, so be sure you have a large enough space. I would think this is a plant that would be embraced by every native plant nursery, unless they have one of those bizarre hang-ups that man-made state political borders matter. Winter hardiness is unknown, but at least Zone 7b-9b.

Forestiera angustifolia - Woodlanders Weeping
Forestiera angustifolia ‘Woodlanders Weeping’

A Sage Old Texan

Blooming recently at JLBG is Patrick’s compact, silver-leaf collection of Leucophyllum frutescens from Uvalde, Texas. Leucophyllum frutescens is an evergreen, dryland shrub to 5′ tall, which bursts into an amazing show of flowers after summer rains. We’ve long-loved leucophyllums, but had failed in several attempts to grow them…0 for 7 prior to this attempt with his collection. Our plants have been in the ground for just over a year, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for long-term success. They key to success is very good drainage in both summer and winter.

Leucophyllum frutescens flowering
Leucophyllum frutescens blooming

Little Big Man

Most highly prized rock garden plants originated somewhere other than the Southeast US. One notable exception is Bigelowia nuttallii, or if you prefer common names, Nuttall’s rayless goldenrod. This fascinating plant resembles a whisk broom that just swept up a spilled bottle of mustard.

Named after English botanist/zoologist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who lived in the US from 1808 until 1841, this fascinating plant, grown by rock gardeners worldwide, is native in only a few locations from Georgia west to Texas.

Bigelowii nuttallii makes a tight evergreen clump of needle-thin leaves, topped from mid-summer until fall with 1′ tall sprays of frothy yellow flowers…yes, those are actually flowers, but without the typical showy “rays”. Full sun for at least half a day, and good drainage are the key to success with this very easy native perennial. Hardiness is Zone 5a-9b.

Bigelowia nuttallii
Bigelowia nuttallii
Bigelowia nuttallii

Hiding from the Heat

Even the garden insects aren’t enjoying our extended heat wave. We caught this grasshopper hiding inside the flower of the threatened Texas endemic, Hibiscus dasycalyx last week, in search of some shade. So far, we’re experiencing the 3rd hottest summer on record in the Raleigh area.

Grasshopper hiding in Hibiscus to escape the heat
Grasshopper taking a break from the heat

Colorata…not Colorado

Another of our favorite early summer plants is the amazing southeast US native Dichromena colorata (aka: Rhynchospora colorata). Known by the common name, white-top star grass/sedge, this tough-as-nails groundcover can be found inhabiting moist ditches from NC to Texas. The floral show last for 1-2 months, depending on weather. Here, we have it growing in regular garden soil (sandy loam) amended with compost, and irrigated regularly. White-top sedge does spread, but not aggressively. Regardless, we’d recommend keeping away from nearby wimpy growers, which would be quickly consumed. Hardiness is Zone 7a and warmer.

Thyme Flies, Thymophylla Flowers

We are in love with the long-flowering Thymnophylla pentachaeta var. pentachaeta ‘Laredo Gold’, which graces us with masses of gold flowers from spring through fall, in our sunny, dry rock garden. This Patrick McMillan collection comes from a population in Texas. Not only is this short-lived, southwestern US native reseeding perennial great in flower, but the native Navajo Indians also used it as a drug for people who want to dream of being chased by deer….we are not making this up!

Baccharis-foliaged Beardtongue

We are enjoying the rare Penstemon baccharifolius this summer in our high/dry crevice garden. This species is native to limestone ledges up to 6,500′ elevation from the Edwards plateau in Texas south into Northern Mexico. This species hates our summer rains, and we had given up on growing this until we built our alkaline crevice garden a few years ago. Now it thrives, growing in 3′ deep Permatill gravel.

Acacias don’t grow here

If you get your gardening information on-line, where everything written is a fact, you’ll know for sure that acacias aren’t growable in Zone 7b, Raleigh, NC. If that includes you, don’t look at the photo below of Acacia greggii ‘Mule Mountain’ in flower at JLBG. Acacia greggii is a native from Texas west to California. Our seven year-old specimen is from Patrick McMillan’s collection in Cochise County, Arizona.

To be nomenclaturally correct, most of the US Acacias have now been moved into the genus Senegalia, so even though the American species aren’t from anywhere near Senegal, this is now known as Senegalia greggii.

Of course, it you also read the hogwash on-line about native pollinators needed and preferring plants they evolved with, then you’ll also have to ignore the masses of native bees that cause the entire plant to buzz while they’re feeding. It’s good we don’t let our plants and insects read books or the Internet.

Redring Monarch food

One of the little-known native asclepias, milkweed, is flowering in the garden this week. Asclepias variegata, redwing milkweed, is a widespread native, ranging from Canada and Virginia south to Florida, and west to Texas. So, why is this virtually unavailable commercially? Our plants typically range from 1.5′ to 2′ tall, although 3′ is possible. For us, it performs best in part sun to light shade.

The specific epithet “variegata” which refers to two colors on the flower was certainly a poor choice, since most asclepias have multi-color flowers. Of course, Linnaeus didn’t have the benefit of the internet back in 1753.

Do you have hairy puccoons?

I fell in love with puccoons several decades ago, when I first saw them growing on the Michigan dunes as I hiked around the shoreline. I was immediately smitten with this native member of the Borage (pulmonaria) family. There are 21 different species of Lithospermum (puccoon) in the US, where some go by the common name, stoneseeds.

It would take me five transplant attempts over the next three decades before we were able to successfully get one established in the garden. The photo below is our collection of Lithospermum caroliniense (hairy puccoon) from East Texas, flowering now in it’s new home adjacent to our crevice garden. This species is partial to acidic, sandy soils, so our next task is to figure out what other conditions it will tolerate and then to get it propagated, so we can share.

Hail to Halesia

Flowering in our parking lot now is the beautiful Halesia diptera var. magniflora, better known as big-flowered two-wing Silverbell. Native from Georgia across to Texas, this beautiful small tree can be found in low moist woodlands. That said, it thrives in average to dry garden conditions.

The variety “magniflora’ is distinguished from the more northern Halesia diptera var. diptera in that the gulf coast form has much larger flowers. This is our collection from Wilcox County, Alabama, where the foliage is much wider than what is typically seen in this taxa. Plants mature at around 20′ in height. Hardiness is Zone 5-8.

Halesia diptera var. magniflora ‘Pine Apple’

Texas Goji

A few years ago, Goji berries were the hot plant for gardeners due to their almost mythically healthy fruit. That was before gardeners realized what a weedy, suckering mess goji (Lycium barbarum) made in the garden. The Lycium species few people knew about was the US native goji berry, Lycium texanum…an endemic to a small region of West Texas.

Here is a new photo of our almost 3 year old clump of Lycium texanum, from a Hudspeth County, TX seed collection by our new Horticulture Manager, Patrick McMillan. This is a non-suckering species with foliage that resembles an asparagus fern…all laden with small red fruit in the fall, which is edible by birds, wildlife, and humans. We’re thinking this may wind up in a future PDN catalog. Hardiness is unknown, but in the wild, it occurs from 3,500′ to 4,600′ elevation, so it should have good cold tolerance. Our photo was taken after our winter lows of 16 degrees F.

Jammin’ Jame

Salvia regla ‘Jame’ (pronounced Haam-hey) is looking so wonderful this time of year. This amazing North American native (US/Mexico) was originally shared back in 2000, by the late Salvia guru, Rich Dufresne. It has adorned our gardens every year since with these amazing fall shows. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Saliva regla ‘Jame’

Have a Fall Flowering Show

There are few plants that put on a better fall show than the amazing Eupatorium havanense, now known as Ageratina havanensis. This oustanding Texas native is flowering now, having burst into flower in early November, providing nectar for a wide variety of insects, and great floristic enjoyment for a wide variety of gardeners. Plant Delights offered this for a number of years, but sadly, few people could be enticed to purchase one. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Eupatorium havanense

Happened on a Habenaria

Looking particularly good this week is one of the Southeast US (NC to Texas) native water orchids, Habenaria repens. This gem flowers through most of the growing season, and hasn’t slowed down as we enter November. Water spider orchid can grow both as a marginal or as a true aquatic. Our plant is growing in one of our crevice garden seeps. We’re working to get this really cool native propagated and available in the future.

Dalea…not Dahlia

Our favorite fall-flowering legume is looking fabulous now. While most daleas (baptisia cousins) flower in spring and summer, only one that we’ve grown waits until fall to produce its amazing floral show. Dalea bicolor var. argyraea is an easy-to-grow species, found in the dry alkaline sandy soils of Texas and New Mexico. Here at JLBG, it has thrived everywhere it’s been planted…all dry, un-irrigated beds. Native pollinators love it also.

Zig Zag Fern

One of our favorite of the US native (Central Texas) desert ferns is Pellaea ovata. Here is our clump in the crevice garden looking quite nice this week. This is scheduled to return to the Plant Delights catalog in January. Hardiness should be at least Zone 7b and south.

Blazing Stars

JLBG is full of blazing stars this fall…some seen when looking down in the garden and others looking up in the night sky. Here are couple of recent images, starting with a Texas collection of the widespread native Liatris aspera that’s looking great in the garden. Looking up in the early dawn hours is also pretty spectacular.

Long-leaf Buckwheet

We admit to a long-standing case of buckwheat envy. Every visit to the worlds great rock gardens, such as the Denver Botanic Garden, leave us lusting to grow the rock garden genus, eriogonum. We’ve killed many members of the genus, since they truly hate our humid and wet summers. Even our crevice garden was no help in keeping these alive, even including our reportedly easy-to-grow Appalachian native, Eriogonum allenii. After almost giving up several times, we can finally declare success with the Texas native Eriogonum longifolium, from our East Texas botanizing expedition. Here’s our clump in full flower, and quite happy in one of the rock garden sections. Granted, it’s not as stunning as some of the species that thrive in Denver, but hey, we can now check that genus off the list.

Eryngium longifolium