Rebecca G. Aguilar | Writer


What is that thing? | Sotol

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on January 9, 2015

Sotol at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center

On a short hike this summer in the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, I took a photo of a stem succulent that I mistakenly believed to be ocotillo. I’d seen this familiar plant on a 2013 visit to Big Bend National Park. Common names of each plant along the nature center’s gorgeous botanical hikes were clearly labeled and the stem succulent in my photo was not at all ocotillo.

The Chihuahuan Desert’s earliest inhabitants would have laughed at my attempts to identify any of the 200 plant species in this diverse ecosystem. (Not to mention its 56 reptile species, 40 fish species, 75 mammal species, 450 bird species and at least 3,600 types of insects.)

With my trusty Canon Rebel T3 and a reliable hiking stick I purchased at the Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park, I walked the nature center for verifiable pics of Parry’s agave, Chihuahuan rainsage and Mexican pinyon.

I’d only later make the connection between the hiking stick and the stem succulent I had photographed at the nature center. I learned that the hiking stick’s light, resilient material was from the type of sotol, Dasylirion leiophyllum, which flourishes in the Chihuahuan Desert Scrub along with creosote bush, lechuguilla, yucca, huisache, mesquite and ocotillo. A common name for the plant is Desert Candle.

The 12 inches of annual precipitation at this elevation in the Chihuahuan Desert comes mostly in summer monsoons when the rainfall rapidly evaporates in the arid landscape. Heat and drought tolerant adaptations allow sotol to thrive here in shallow soil over rocky limestone.

The heart of sotol has been roasted for food, fermented for beer and distilled as a spirit, while the fibrous leaf ends have been used for rope, baskets, mats, roof thatch and huaraches. The stalk of the versatile sotol has not only made for handy hiking sticks but also provided the vaquero with sturdy material for corrals to herd cattle.

Update: Children’s nonfiction author Mary Dodson Wade informed me that the structure of Henrietta King’s first house, a jacal, was built with stalks of sotol filled in with adobe. According to Mary’s research, the house was small with little space for storage so the young Henrietta would hang her large serving platters outside on the wall.


Major Plant Communities. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center.

Native Plant Database. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Big Bend National Park: Nature & Science. National Park Service.


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