• Sierra del Carmen

    Big Bend

    National Park Texas

Common Plants of Big Bend National Park

Century plant

Century plant in the Chisos mountains

NPS Photo

Agaves are a low growing evergreen plant with succulent leaves that form a bowl shape or basal rosette. Colonies are often formed from the underground sprouts. The leaves are tipped in a hard spine and the leaf margins may also have spines. Agaves bloom once in their lifetime and then die. The rapidly growing flower stalk seems to exhaust all of its resources to survive. The fruit is a brown capsule with three cells and two rows of black seeds. There are eleven species of agave in Texas.

There are three agaves in Big Bend National Park. Agave lecheguilla, commonly called lechuguilla, is the indicator plant of the Chihuahuan Desert. This means it is only found in the Chihuahuan Desert and nowhere else in the world! Lechuguilla was a very important source of fiber for Native Americans and is still used today to make rope in Mexico. The roots of the plant are high in saponins, so they taste bitter but are a good source of soap. The lechuguilla blooms once after growing three to twenty years.

Agave havardiana or the century plant is the largest agave in the park. It blooms once in its life after growing 20-50 years. Mexican long-nosed bats pollinate the bright yellow flowers. The leaves of the century plant have a blue-gray color. The century plant also provides an excellent source of fiber for ropes, mats, sandals, etc. The hearts of the plants were harvested by the Native Americans and then baked in a stone lined pit for two to three days. Once baked, the plant provided a source of food that could be dried and stored to help them to survive the long winter. The dried flower stalks served as building material. Century plants in Mexico provide the alcoholic beverages of pulque, mescal, and tequila.

The third agave in Big Bend National Park is actually a hybrid. Agave gracilipes is the plant that occurs when the century plant and lechuguilla cross breed. It looks like a large lechuguilla or a small century plant. It also provided fiber for the Native Americans.


NPS Photo

Sotol (Dasylirion liophyllum) is composed of a cluster of numerous linear, flattened leaves that have hooked teeth along the margins of the leaf. The leaf bases are spoon-like. A tall flower stalk is produced each spring that has light colored, nondescript flowers clustered together. The fruit is three-winged and triangular. Twenty species occur in southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico.

Sotol was an important source of materials for basket making. The young flower stalks were eaten, as were the seeds. The heart of the plant was cooked along with agave hearts in a stone-lined pit for several days and then eaten. The stalks were used to make temporary shelters, porches, roofs, corrals and walking sticks. When the sap is fermented it produces the alcoholic beverage also called sotol.


NPS Photo

Nolina species have linear leaves that are long, numerous, and clustered. Margins of the leaves are finely toothed. The flower is short stemmed, with cream-colored flowers. The leaves were an important source of material for mats, sandals, and basket making. However, the plant was not eaten since it is poisonous and could cause liver and kidney damage. There are five species in the Trans-Pecos area and 30 species in the U.S. and Mexico.

Oak leaves

NPS Photo

There are 45 species of oaks (Quercus sp.) in Texas and nine in Big Bend National Park. These trees or shrubs have simple alternate leaves with margins that are smooth, lobed, or toothed. The fruit or acorn is one celled, one seeded, and sits in a cup that partially envelops the seed. Hybridization is common among oaks. The oaks of Big Bend National Park are relic species—left behind on the mountaintops from a cooler time. The acorns on most species are edible. They need to be soaked in water before eating to remove some of the bitter taste. The early settlers of this area commonly made a flour or meal from the leached acorns. Oaks produce a hard wood important for firewood, tools, and furniture making.


Did You Know?

The Rio Grande Village store

At 1,850 feet (564m), Rio Grande Village is the lowest point in Big Bend National Park. Because of its elevation and the surrounding landscape, Rio Grande Village often experiences strong winds. During the winter there can be a 50 degree difference between high and low temperatures. More...