Introduction to Desert Plants: Panther Path

A sidewalk bounded by native plant curves through image.
Panther Path curves through the desert landscape.


Panther Path (located to the west of the Panther Junction Visitors Center) is a short, wheelchair-accessible sidewalk. Many of the native plants that border the sidewalk are labeled. You can even earn an embroidered patch when you learn about some of our most common desert plants. To get started, ask a Ranger about the Panther Path Junior Ranger activity.
The chocolate brown stems of leatherstem are adorned with small leaves and white flowers.
Tiny, bell-shaped flowers hang from a leatherstem stalk.


Jatropha dioica

Named for its flexible, leathery stems, this plant is leafless during the dry months. After rain, the stems sprout spatula-shaped leaves. Also called sangre de drago (dragon's blood) because of the sticky red sap that oozes from the broken stems. The sap is astringent and was used to treat gum disease.
A bunch of candelilla with thin, green stems and small, white flowers.
Pencil-thin stems of candelilla form a clump in the desert.


Euphorbia antisyphilitica

A coating of wax protects candelilla stems from water loss. This high-quality wax is used in many applications. If you've ever chewed gum, used cosmetics, or polished your car you've used candelilla wax.
Thin, strap-like leaves of soaptree yucca have white margines.
Soaptree yucca

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Soaptree Yucca
Yucca elata

Soaptree yucca is one of the tallest yuccas in Big Bend. Look closely at the thin, strap-like leaves. If the margins are white, it's a soaptree yucca. White fibers peel away from the leaf edges, forming a tangle of threads near the stem. An extract from the roots was used to make soap and shampoo.
Cream and pink-tinged blossums of a torrey yucca.
Pink-tinged flowers of a Torrey Yucca.


Torrey Yucca
Yucca torreyi

This common yucca can be found throughout the park. Bright yellow and black Scott's Orioles like to nest among its thick, stiff, leaves. Torrey yucca primarily blooms in the spring, but may produce a bloom stalk any time of the year.
Long, thin sotol leaves lined with sharp barbs.
Sotol leaves lined with sharp barbs.

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Smooth Sotol
Dasylirion leiophyllum

Sotol was the superstore of plants.Baskets and mats were woven from the leaves. The starchy heart was baked and eaten or fermented to make a potent alcoholic drink. Even today, the tall, woody bloom stalks are sanded smooth and sold as lightweight--yet strong--walking sticks.
Thick, curved prickles line the margins of an agave leaf.
Dark prickles line the leaf margin of a Havard agave.


Havard Agave
Agave havardiana

Havard agaves live for 8 to 30 years before they bloom, set seed, and die. When in bloom, the yellow flowers and sweet nectar attract insects, birds, and especially bats.
Stalk of yellow lechuguilla flowers with red stamens.
Flower stalk of a lechuguilla.

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Agave lechuguilla

Pronounced letch-u-GEE-yuh, this small agave blooms only once in its lifetime. The short leaves are sharp-tipped and coated with a mild poison. Don't get stabbed by one! The puncture is painful. For thousands of years, people used the strong leaf fibers to make rope and other cordage.
A short, cylindrical cactus with bands of rust-red and pale spines topped with large bowl-shaped flowers.
Texas rainbow cactus.


Texas Rainbow Cactus
Echinocereus dasyacanthus

Texas Rainbow Cactus usally has a single stem, but may branch when older or if damaged. Large yellow flowers bloom in the spring. The bands of tan, yellow, and reddish-brown spines on the stem, give this cactus a distinct, rainbow appearance.
A low-growing, cylindrical cactus with rust-brown flowers grows among rocks.
Brown-flowered hedgehog cactus.


Brown-flowered Hedgehog Cactus
Echinocereus viridiflorus

This small cactus is fairly common on volcanic soils at mid- to high-elevations. In the spring, rusty-red flowers emerge from the middle third of the stem. The funnel-shaped flowers never open very wide.
A squat, dome-shaped cactus with heavy spines outlining the ribs, and a large, pink flower.
Magenta flower of an Eagle Claw Cactus.


Eagle Claw Cactus
Echinocactus horizonthalonius

Also known as Turk's Cap, this cylindrical cactus is usually found growing alone. Its stem is divided into eight segments. Within a few days of spring and summer rain, brilliant magenta flowers emerge.
A tree-like cactus with many short, cylindrical limbs and magenta flowers.
Magenta flowers cover the stems of a cane cholla.

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Cane Cholla
Opuntia imbricata

Pronounced "CHOY-ya," this tree-like cactus erupts with magenta flowers from April to June. Knobby, yellow fruit remain on the plant through the winter months. Older stems develop a woody skeleton to support the upright growth of the plant.
Red fruit covers the thin, pencil-like stems of a tasajillo cactus.
Tasajillo during a winter ice storm.

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Opuntia leptocaulis

Pronounced tah-sah-HEE-yo, this cactus is often found growing under bushes. The red fruits remain on the plant through the winter, giving it a second name: Desert Christmas Cactus.
The flat pads of Blind Prickly pear are nearly spineless.
Fine glochids grow in the aeroles of blind prickly pear pads.


Blind Prickly Pear
Opuntia rufida

Common in lower elevations, this is the only native prickly pear without long spines. Instead, fine, brown, glochids grow in the areoles. Be careful! The glochids are painful and hard to remove if you get them in your skin.
Yellow flowers with red centers bloom on the edges of purplish prickly pear pads.
Purplish prickly pear blooms in the late spring.


Purplish Prickly Pear
Opuntia azurea

Found only within the greater Big Bend region, this prickly pear can be vibrant green during the rainy season or deep magenta during cold or dry months. Yellow flowers with red centers appear from April through July.
Seven red prickly pear fruits line edge of green pad.
Ripe tunas line the edge of an Engelmann's prickly pear pad.


Engelmann's Prickly Pear
Opuntia engelmannii

The largest prickly pear in the park. Bright yellow flowers bloom in spring, followed by red fruit (called tunas) that ripen in summer. Javelina eat the pads, spines and all. Bear, deer, rabbits, and fox eat the juicy fruit.
A cluster of red, tubular ocotillo flowers with a spiny stem in the background.
Ocotillo in bloom.


Fouquieria splendens

Often mistaken for a cactus, this spiny shrub will grow leaves in wet times, then shed them when it dries out in order to conserve water. Red flowers bloom from the stem tips in spring. Ocotillo stems--which will grow when cut and planted in the ground--are often used to create a "living fence."
Yellow, five-petaled flowers of a creosote bush.
Yellow flowers and small, fuzzy fruit of the creosote bush.


Creosote bush
Larrea tridentata

One of the most common plants in the Chihuahuan Desert, this shrub gives the desert its pungent scent following rain. The small yellow flowers bloom in spring and summer. Flowers and small, fuzzy fruit may be seen on the plant at the same time. The resin-coated leaves of creosote are used in medicinal teas.
Clusters of yellow, tubular flowers on yellow trumpetflower.
Showy yellow flowers bloom shortly after spring or summer rains.


Yellow Trumpetflower
Tecoma stans

Also called Esperanza, the bright yellow, trumpet-shaped flwoers attract hummingbirds and native bees. After a rainstorm, brilliant displays of trumpetflower can be seen on the trail down to Homer Wilson Ranch or along the rocky slopes near Sotol Vista.
Balls of yellow flowers, long string-bean-like seedpods, and paired white thorns on whitethorn acacia.
Whitethorn acacia is named for the long, pairs of white thorns on the stem.


Whitethorn Acacia
Acacia constricta

Pairs of white thorns at the stem nodes give this shrub its name. Whitethorn acacia blooms April through August with fragrant clusters of yellow flowers. Quail shelter under the plants and feed on the high-protein seeds.
Bright red fruit hang from densely-leaved guayacan branches.
Guayacan's bright red fruit are attention-grabbers in the fall.


Guiaicum angustifolium

This gnarled shurb has tiny leaves to conserve water. The pruple to white flowers bloom from May to October, producing fruit with a bright red covering over a black seed inside a winged yellow pod.
Dense catkins of yellow flowers cover a honey mesquite tree.
Mesquite flowers attract native bees, butterflies, flies, and wasps as pollinators.


Honey Mesquite
Prosopis glandulosa

Mesquite's are desert survivors. Their roots may extend 150 feet into the soil to reach water. The seeds are sweet and high-protein, making them excellent feed for animals. Mesquite pods are ground into flour or soaked and boiled down to make jelly for human use.

Last updated: September 1, 2020

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