July 2014 Plant Highlight: Dasylirion wheeleri

by Brian Kemble

 

Plants in the genus Dasylirion are notable for their hemispherical rosettes of stiffly radiating leaves. Most species have strap-like thin leaves with serrated edges, though a couple of kinds have needle-like leaves. They are a common sight in the dry parts of the U.S. Southwest and also in Mexico. The most widely cultivated species is Dasylirion wheeleri, native to southern Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.


Male Dasylirion wheeleri in flower
 

The blue-green leaves of Dasylirion wheeleri are thin rather than succulent, and their serrated margins mean that caution is in order when weeding around them. On a full-grown plant, the leaves are up to 4 feet long (1.2 m) and about ¾ inch to a little over 1 inch wide (2 to 3 cm). Over time, D. wheeleri develops a short trunk which can be as much as 5 feet tall (1.5 m), but this happens so slowly that it takes decades to become evident.

 

Male buds looking like little purple ears of corn
Open male flowers
 

Like all members of its genus, D. wheeleri is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. In either case, a stout stalk emerges from the rosette of leaves in summer, rising to a height of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m), and attached to this are papery triangular bracts and many short floral branches with little “fingers” of tiny white flowers. Each of these “fingers” is only a few inches long (up to about 6 cm), but packed with many flowers. The female flower clusters are a little shorter and remain upright, while the longer male ones often bend to the side. Bees are attracted to the flowers, gathering pollen from male plants and nectar from female ones.


Bee visiting male flower

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The mission of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. is to preserve this exceptional example of garden design and to continue to develop its collection of water-conserving plants for the education and enjoyment of the public.  
 
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