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Desert Diary


The small agave known by the Spanish name "Lechuguilla", "Little Lettuce" in English, is an important natural signpost for the Chihuahuan Desert. Called an "indicator species" by scientists, its presence on rocky limestone hillsides always means you are within the boundaries of our beautiful desert.

Also known as "Shin Dagger" for the stout, needle-sharp spine at the tip of each dagger-like leaf, Agave lechuguilla can be a serious hazard to unprepared desert hikers, especially those foolish enough to wear sneakers or sandals instead of strong protective boots. Even the journals of early Spanish explorers advised wide detours to avoid travel through impenetrable stands of this plant which delivers painful injuries to the feet and legs of both animals and humans.

The succulent roots of Lechuguilla are an important food source for javelina and mule deer. Native Americans pounded the sturdy, 12 to 18 inch leaf blades flat to make hard, coarse fibers used for mats, cordage, and sandals. Today, that fiber is known as "istle", and it is still produced in Mexico for rope and other purposes.
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Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Wynn Anderson, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Agave lechuguilla

Agave lechuguilla, Franklin Mountains, El Paso Co., TX. Photograph by Arthur H. Harris, 13 January 2001.



Powell, A. M. 1998. Trees and Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas. University of Texas Press, Austin, 498 pp.