Nature Notes: Lechugilla

The 19th century Texas Ranger who wrote that in Texas “everything stings, scratches, or bites” certainly had this little plant in mind.  

The 12- to 18- inch tall Lechugilla is one of the most abundant plants in the Chihuahuan Desert. It frequently grows in 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 first-hand 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 wounds hurt like the dickens and can take months to heal. These spines can cripple a horse and severely injure any human who happens to fall upon it. 

But Lechugilla is not all bad. Like other agaves, it stays green year round. When it’s old enough, it sends up a flower stalk 10 to15 feet off the ground that’s covered with lovely wine and yellow colored flowers. Lechugilla, as much as any other plant in the Trans Pecos, gives our area the look that tells us this is home. 

After flowering, the remaining stalk is one of the few viable alternatives to wood to be found in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Besides being beautiful, Lechugilla is also useful. Lechugilla has been harvested for its tough fibers for 10,000 years. Native tribes used it for everything from baskets to sandals, and today thousands of peasants in Mexico make their livings gathering and processing it.  

Lechugilla fiber, called “ixtl” in Mexico is often referred to as “Mexico’s Natural Wonder” in recognition of its exceptional characteristics. Used as bristles in 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, coarse twine, and rope produced in northeastern Mexico today are still made from Lechugilla fiber. Though the fiber has long been supplanted by synthetics in the U.S., it’s again becoming more valuable as people search for more sustainable and natural products. You’ll find ixtl fiber brushes of many kinds for sale on the web, and your local health food store may carry a Lechugilla-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. 

Nature Notes is produced by the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Marfa Public Radio and is sponsored by the Meadows Foundation and the Dixon Water Foundation. Tune in to Nature Notes on KRTS-93.5 FM on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:35 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. and again on Thursdays at 7:06 p.m. Visit us online atnaturenotesradio.org.