July 2007 Plant Highlight: Nolina interrata

by Brian Kemble

Image of N. interrata

Nolina is a relatively small genus of monocots from the southern U.S. and Mexico.  It is the type genus of the family Nolinaceae, which contains only three other genera:  Beaucarnea, Calibanus, and Dasylirion.  All four genera in the family are found in Mexico, with Nolina and Dasylirion extending northward into the southern U.S., and Beaucarnea extending southward into Central America.  In the past, members of this family were included in the agave family, but they are a distinct group and are best kept together in their own family.

While some nolinas develop a trunk in time and grow to be small trees, others resemble clumps of coarse grass and are sometimes referred to as “Beargrass”.  Nolina interrata is in a sense a compromise, since it has a woody stem, but usually this is buried in the ground.  It is notable for its attractive arching glaucous-blue leaves, about a half-inch to an inch wide (1.25 to 2.5 cm) and 2½ to 4 feet long (up to 1.25 m).

Like all members of the Nolinaceae, N. interrata has separate male and female plants, identical except when in flower.  In either case, the branched inflorescence reaches a height of up to 7 feet (over 2 m), with many tiny white flowers arrayed along the branches.  The fruit is a papery capsule with 3 chambers, bearing roundish seeds of a red-brown to tannish-yellow color.

N. interrata is considered an endangered species in California, with only 2 small populations in San Diego County.  While there are 3 additional populations in Baja California, this is definitely a rare and localized plant.  Our specimens at the Ruth Bancroft Garden were distributed by another botanical garden after being rescued from the development that has been encroaching on its remaining habitat. 

  Image of N. interrata in flower   Image of N. interrata flower and seedpods  
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