Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Desert Spoon

Dasylirion wheeleri


The Dasylirion wheeleri is a favorite butchering subject for landscapers. It seems everywhere I go this plant, commonly called Sotol or Desert Spoon, is pruned up to look like a pineapple. I can’t figure out what compels landscape crews to do this, as this plant looks quite nice in its natural rosette shape.


After years, it will form a trunk of sorts naturally. These plants can get huge—up to six feet high and in diameter. They have no business in street medians and in small landscapes. Perhaps this is the main reason for the pruning—wrong plant in the wrong place.


D. wheeleri, sometimes mistaken for a Yucca or Agave, is part of the Agavaceae family. After sending up a flower stalk, it doesn’t die like most Agave. The Dasylirion genus contains about twelve species, and is native to the southwestern U.S. This plant is drought and frost tolerant and needs no care. I have several in my garden, where I use it as an accent plant to contrast with columnar and pad cacti. I've made sure the shrub has a wide berth in order to grow naturally. Since my plants are young and still relatively small, the open space around them looks rather barren, but I've planned for its future size.


This plant had many useful purposes for native peoples. Its stem fibers were made into baskets and other household items. Sotol parts are edible for both humans and livestock. Today in Mexico, parts of the plant are made into an alcoholic drink called Sotol.

30 comments:

kate said...

Are the leaves of this plant quite stiff and rough? It has a beautiful shape.

No Rain said...

Hi Kate,
Yes, the blue-green leaves are somewhat stiff (but they are flexible--hence their use as fiber)and they have teeth on the leaves that face downward, so that if you get stuck and try to pull away, it rips your skin!
When left to grow naturally they do have a beautifully full, rounded shape.

scottfree173 said...

Dear no rain,
Here's a thorny question - I've got several mature desert spoons in the yard that haven't been trimmed. Would like to trim off about 3-4" of leaves at the bottom of each, just enough to allow the bottom row of leaves to almost touch the ground. The question - do you have any tips for moving leaves aside or lifting them to allow access to the ones at the bottom? I'd like to try to do this trimming without getting myself shredded!
Thanks.

No Rain said...

Hi Scott,
The best way to trim (if you think trimming is necessary--usually the bottom leaves just dry and don't need trimming) is to use a large section of old carpet to pull the upper leaves aside. The carpet should be long enought to wrap around the plant. You can then tie it together and trim. This works even better is you have someone to help. They can just pull on the two ends of the carpet as you trim--and just move around plant without removing the carpet. Hope this helps.
Aiyana

Redrockjed said...

No Rain.
I have a cottony and sticky substance on my desert spoon. It seems to be inhibiting the growth of the plant. When I spray it with a strong spray from the garden hose it washes off with some effort.
Through my research I believe that it is one of the many varieties of scale insects. Do you think this is the case? If I cannot control the scale insects will they kill my desert spoon? Have you ever seen scale insects on desert spoons before?

Aiyana said...

redrockjed,
Sounds like spider mites. I have not heard of this problem before with Desert Spoon, however. Spider mites seem to like more tender plants, and once you have them, they are tough to defeat. You can spray the plant with a mixture of 1/2 alcohol and 1/2 water in a spray bottle. If that doesn't work, there are miticides available, but I don't like to use them. Spider mites spread to other plants, so keep your Desert Spoon isolated.
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

First of all, I completey agree with you on the pruning issue. I've only lived in the valley for about two years, but I've never understood why these great looking plants are butcherd to look like some type of short pinappple/tree.
Any, I have a few of these in my yard (luckily they are "unpruned") and I've noticed the tips seem to be very dry/dead looking. I've seen this before, but it looks like more of the leaf (almost thr outer third) is like this on some of them. Is there something I need to do in order to help this plant along or just leave it as is?

Aiyana said...

Anonymous,
Some drying is normal, and the tips usually have long hairlike curly strands that are also normal. Desert Spoon, once established, does not nee supplemental water if our rainfall is in the normal range. Sometimes during long, dry summers, I will give them one watering to help them look a little better, but it is not necessary. The lower leaves naturally dry out as they age, so this is also normal. At this point, I wouldn't be too worried about your plants. If the whole thing begins to dry out, then it probably has come to the end of its life cycle.
Hope this helps,
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

My desert spoon is leaning. I've never seen this before. It is about 5 years old and the center section looks like something push up against it causing the center to grow at a 45 degree angle. It is stiff and doesn't push upright. What would cause this and should I try to retrain it?
Thanks

Aiyana said...

Anonymous,
It sounds like your desert spoon is dying off. Sometimes the center will stay tight and lean when the plant has stopped growing. Desert Spoon is normally not bothered by normal pests, so it's hard to know what is happening with it. Perhaps a gopher? It can't be retrained to grow upright. If the root ball or heart has been damaged, it probably won't recover. I hate to be negative, but I doubt there's much you can do. You can wait until it shows futher signs of deterioration just to make sure, then remove it.
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

The center stalk makes the most excellant walking stick. They are strong yet very light. It can be smoothed with a knife and sanded(even stained) when dry. I use them for many misc. handles etc. Out here in Arizona I like them for hiking balance and snake prodders.

Kaiyum said...

Can I cut the center stalk after the flowers fell off? Since most of the stalks are leaning over and touch the ground it doesn't look so nice anymore. And will it flower again?

Aiyana said...

Kaiyum,
Yes, you can cut the stalks as they dry. The plant may flower next June (the usual month for flowering) but blooming is sporatic. It won't send up any more stalks this year. Some people confuse Desert Spoon with Red Yucca, which does send up stalks several times a year.
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

Don't like pruning them, huh!
What a bunch of snobby people. There are those of us who like working with these plants and think they are beautiful shaped and cared for. Pruning is not for the timid though.

Aiyana said...

Anonymous,
To each his own. Prune away!
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

The reason people prune them is to avoid pack rats from nesting at the base. Pack rats love the protection the spiny leaves provide, so you need to cut away the bottom ones so the critters do not feel safe enough to nest there.

Anonymous said...

We have several in our yard, all planted at the same time. We have on that is about 6' across. Went on vacation for 6 weeks and came back to find a bloom 15' high! We were shocked but it is beautiful!
Does anyone know how often they bloom?

Aiyana said...

Anonymous,
Every two or three years you can expect the desert spoon to send up a flower stalk now that it has matured enough to do so. Much depends on weather conditions and location, so the actual frequency is unpredictible. It only blooms one time each year that it blooms. The time of year for the stalk will not vary much from one time to another.
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

We have had this cactus in our yard for the last eight years or so with no issues. This past summer, it finally grew a twelve foot stalk that seemed to pop up over night! The flowers bloomed and then died off. I left the stalk, (for no other reason than I didn't know what to do), and it seemed to begin leaning. So I thought I would cut it off this week. I thought perhaps it was causing the leaves to turn yellowish or brown. But as I began to handle the stalk to cut it off, I noticed the center of the plant was very soft. The leaves, (some not completely brown), can be pulled out from the trunk easily. I'm guessing it has been getting way too much water. Is there any way it will recover? I have had a drip system on the plant along with the rest of the landscaping and during the summer it was running daily. Did I kill it? I hope not...it is a beautiful desert plant. Thanks for your help!

Aiyana said...

It sure sounds like your Desert Spoon has root rot. That can happen with overwatering, especially during the monsoon period. If it starts to emit a foul odor, you'll know for sure. You can also try pushing the plant over. If it is still viable, it won't budge, but if it is rotting it will easily be dislodged and you should dispose of it.
Aiyana

Anonymous said...

At the tail end of ou last summer here in Phoenix alot of the lower leaves had died so I trimmed them off. The DS planted in a very large wok planter along with lantana that died. Well, after replanting the lantana and trimming the DS I continue with a problem. More and more leaves on the DS are beginning to turn brown from the tips inward. HELP with any advise.

Aiyana said...

Sounds like heat stress from an extra hot, dry summer. I would not worry about the browning leaves and just wait and see if the browning slows down over the next 6months. Browning at the tips is natural. If the browning continues and the upper leaves turn brown from tip to base, then the plant may be dying. I would not give up on it and see what's happening next April or May. If it looks awful, then you may have to replace. Lantana takes a lot more water than the DS, so make sure not to overwater. That's as bad as underwatering in a containerized plant.
Aiyana

mfairchild said...

Hi Aiyana, thanks for the great information and for taking questions. I have 3 spoons that came with the house. They are about 4' high and just starting to touch each other. I need to remove them and I'd like to transplant them. Is it possible? How much root ball should I try for? I figured I could use the carpet trick to handle them out of the ground but is it worth it?

Aiyana said...

I really think it would be far more work than reward to try to transplant, with all those mean leaves! If you really want to go to the effort, you could dig down about a foot and about the same width. After transplanting, water about once a week, but not too much. Cut back after a couple of months. It will take a few months to tell if you were successful. These plants don't immediately die off--it takes awhile for it to show. It takes even longer to tell if they are growing. Best wishes,
Aiyana

mfairchild said...

Thanks for the quick response. They do look too big to try and wrestle. The previous owners mounded up earth against the back yard wall and planted the spoons half way up the mound. The weight of the dirt is pushing the wall over ever so slowly. Reading the above comments, I'm at least going to wait until June to see if they will bloom this year. I could plant their seeds.

Anonymous said...

HI there,
I have two Desert Spoons in my front yard and they tend to attract all the stupid non native leaves from other yards. Weeds are also pretty happy under there which sucks this especially cool spring. We have raked under in the past to get them clean but I have always wondered if I should trim a few rows underneath.

Also, I am surprised to learn that they flower. I have had mine for almost 10 years and they have never flowered or sent up a stalk. I dont know if the landscapers put a drip hose under them but I am assuming not. What can I do to make them flower?
Thanks
Dot

Aiyana said...

It doesn't hurt to trim the bottom leaves to help with maintenance--but don't pineapple the plant like so many people do! Natural always looks better.
There is nothing I know of to hurry along the flowering. Nature makes that decision.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if Roundup would kill the Desert Spoon? My neighbor is gone for the summer and I just noticed fairly large weeds growing up from under his plants. I'd rather spray than try to pull weeds but don't want to kill his Desert Spoons.

Anonymous said...

How far down the flower stalk should I cut the stem and how long after it flowers? I am also wondering how to cut it.

Aiyana said...

You can cut the flower stalk quite low--I would cut it in line with the leaves or below if you want to obscure it. Most people wait until they are dried before cutting, or when they start leaning.
Aiyana