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Nolinaceae = Beargrass Family

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Originally included within the Agavaceae, the Nolinaceae have since been separated into their own monocotyledonous family of succulent plants that includes the four genera Beaucarnea, Calibanus, Dasylirion, and Nolina. Many members of the Nolinaceae are characterised by stout succulent caudexes or swollen trunks storing water and food reserves, while supporting relatively thin, wiry leaves.
Members of the Nolinaceae are found in the Southern states of the USA and through Mexico into Guatemala. Unlike most Agaves, all members of the family Nolinaceae are polycarpic and dioecious, with decorative spikes of numerous small creamy-white flowers, sometimes tinged with pink or purple.
Click on images for a larger picture.

Nolina gracilis

Beaucarnea  Lemaire 1861

The ten species within the genus Beaucarnea are small succulent trees with woody trunks and swollen caudiciform bases distributed through Mexico and Guatemala. The minute teeth along the edges of the leaves give them a rough feel. The branched inflorescence carries numerous small creamy-white flowers.

Beaucarnea gracilis

Beaucarnea gracilis  Lemaire 1861
Syn. Nolina gracilis  Ciferri & Giacomini 1950
Even a small plant develops a substantial caudex, which becomes very large in old plants, up to 8ft in diameter at its base. The 2-3ft long leaves have minute sharp teeth along their edges. The inflorescence is a panicle of tiny cream flowers.
Native to the Mexican states of Puebla and Oaxaca Mexico. Photographed in the University of Oxford's Botanic Garden.

Beaucarnea recurvata
B. recurvata inflorescenceB. recurvata inflorescence
Top: Feb. 2005
Bottom: Oct. 2011

Beaucarnea recurvata  Lemaire 1861  Syn. Nolina recurvata (Pony-Tail Palm)
is mass produced by the horticultural trade as an architectural succulent plant for warm climate landscaping and as a tender patio succulent requiring winter protection from frost in temperate climates. Typically sold at 10 - 12 inches tall, these plants can grow very large with proper care over many years. If the growing tip is lost through cold, pruning or other damage, the stem produces side shoots, as seen on the smaller plant at the rear. An attractively branched specimen of limited height can be produced through judicious pruning.
Left: The 10ft specimen in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at RBG Kew produced a splendid inflorescence in February 2005 and Octuber 2011. Flowering is rarely seen in cultivation, as this succulent plant has to be old enough to have reached a substantial size.

Beaucarnea stricta Beaucarnea stricta

Beaucarnea stricta  Lemaire 1861 (Estrellas)
is a substantial 20-30 ft succulent tree. The stout trunk has a swollen, conical base and one or more rosettes of stiff, straight blue-green 3ft leaves on branches near the top of the trunk. Old leaves remain as felting on the trunk unless removed. The inflorescence consists of many tiny greenish-yellow flowers on a branched stem.
Beaucarnea stricta is native to forests of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is sometimes used as an specimen succulent plant in warm or Mediterranean climates. These magnificent specimens have reached the roof of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, RBG Kew. Flowering March 2010.

Calibanus  Rose 1906
Named: after a character Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest".

The succulent genus Calibanus was monotypic for Calibanus hookeri for many years, but recently acquired a second rather similar species, C. glassianus.

Calibanus hookeri
Photo: Bob Weeks
Calibanus hookeri
Calibanus hookeri Calibanus hookeri inflorescence

Calibanus hookeri  Trelease 1911
has bundles of long coarse leaves emerging from a woody caudex that may become very large. Tiny serrations along the edge of the leaves give them a rough feel. The branched inflorescence arising from and mainly held within a tuft of leaves carries numerous small cream to purple flowers. Tufts of leaves die after flowering but the remaining non-flowering bunches of leaves continue to grow.
Calibanus hookeri is distributed through North-East and Central Mexico. Coming from dry mountainous areas, it is tolerant of considerable dry cold. It eventually makes an excellent specimen succulent caudiciform for showing in a large pot size and is relatively undemanding.

Dasylirion   Zuccarini 1838
Named: Gr. dasys = thick, lirion = lily

Nineteen species of Dasylirion are included within the Nolinaceae. Most Dasylirions grow as stemless rosettes with sharply hooked toothed edges to the leaves which are abrasive to the skin. In most species the hooks curve towards the leaf tip but those on the leaves of Dasylirion leiophyllum from Southern Texas curve distinctively towards the base. Dasylirion quadrangulatum has small straight teeth and a trunk up to 16ft tall and mature plants of several species form short trunks.

Dasylirion acrotrichum

Left: Dasylirion acrotrichum  Zuccarini 1840 (Cucharilla, Green Desert Spoon)
Greek: acrotrichum = with hairy end. Spanish: Cucharilla = little spoon.
A decorative, xerophytic succulent plant from the deserts of Eastern Mexico. The narrow, 3ft long leaves are organised into one or more dense rosettes which in older plants are carried on the end of stout trunks. Hooked marginal teeth point away from the leaf base and leaf tips fray in the wind to a tuft of fibres which catch the sunlight. The leaf base is in the shape of a spoon. The inflorescence is a 15ft spike of many small brownish-white flowers arranged on numerous side branches.
Suitable for a Mediterranean climate and said to be moderately hardy in a well-drained soil, so worth trying if you have a very sunny sheltered corner, can overwinter indoors or under cover or protect it with a fleece.

Dasylirion cedrosanum

Left: Dasylirion cedrosanum  Trelease 1911
A beautiful glaucous blue succulent plant from Northern Mexico, similar to D. wheeleri although the leaves may be slightly wider. Marginal teeth point away from the leaf base. A short thick trunk develops with age. It is not widely grown, but is said to be quite hardy in a well-drained soil, so worth trying if you have a sunny sheltered corner.
Photographed in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona.

Dasylirion leiophyllum Dasylirion leiophyllum
Dasylirion leiophyllum

Left: Dasylirion leiophyllum  Engelmann ex Trelease 1911 (Sotol)
in the "Green Gulch" of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas. Although sufficiently mature to flower, these rosettes are stem-less. The hooked teeth on the leaf margins of this species curve towards the base of the leaves.
Where its range overlaps with D. texanum, hybrids with intermediate morphology occur, with marginal teeth pointing towards the leaf base, leaf tip or straight out.
Left: Dasylirion leiophyllum (Sotol) - Davis Mountains, Texas. These mature specimens have developed short trunks hidden by persistent old leaves. Trunks may grow up to 5ft tall.
This hardy succulent plant is distributed through West Texas and East New Mexico into Mexico. It is cold resistant and widely grown as an ornamental within its natural range.

Dasylirion longissimum

Left: Dasylirion longissimum  Lemaire 1856  Syn. D. quadrangulatum (Mexican Grass Tree)
is a large, spreading succulent plant developing a trunk up to 15ft and felted with old leaves. Old plants may develop multiple heads of leaves, typically branching after flowering. The narrow, 4-angled leaves have slightly rough margins, but no teeth. Their stiff, arching appearance is distinctive. The inflorescence is a narrow 10ft spike of many tiny red-brown buds and white flowers. Native to hillsides of North-Eastern Mexico.
Photographed in the Temperate House, RBG Kew where it gets more shade than necessary, and probably more warmth than required. This species is reported to be moderately frost hardy providing it is planted in very well drained soil in a sunny position. Old leaves could be trimmed to display the trunk if required.

Dasylirion wheeleri

Left: Dasylirion wheeleri  S. Watson 1878 (Sotol)
This species develops a trunk up to 5ft tall. The leaves produce a glaucous bloom when grown under cover, but this is washed off in habitat. It is mainly distributed through Arizona and Southern New Mexico into Mexico and being hardy and tolerant of poor soil is widely grown as an ornamental in the Southern USA.
Native peoples harvested the leaves to weave into baskets, mats, cords and thatching. The emerging inflorescence can be roasted and eaten. This succulent plant was used to make an alcoholic liquor for distillation into a spirit called "Sotol".
Seen here South of Phoenix, Arizona.

Nolina   Michaux 1803
Named: after an 18th Century French botanist, Nolin.

There are 25 species of succulent plants included within the genus Nolina, mainly distributed from California to Texas and into Mexico, where the majority of species are found. Rosettes of different species may be stemless or on tall woody trunks. Tiny serrations on the leaf edges make them feel rough to the touch. The decorative inflorescence bears thousands of tiny cream-coloured flowers.

Nolina bigelovii

Nolina bigelovii  S. Watson 1879 (Desert Nolina)
flowering in Northern Arizona near Flagstaff, May 1997. With time, this succulent plant develops a trunk up to 10ft tall. Leaf margins are smooth and may be filamentous. Growing at an altitude of around 6000ft above sea level, this species can be expected to show a degree of dry-cold resistance and is extremely drought resistant.
Nolina bigelovii is found in the dryest parts of Southeastern California through Southwest Arizona into Southern Nevada and also Sonoran Mexico and Baja California.

Nolina aff. durangensis

Nolina aff. Durangensis  Trelease 1911 (Durango Beargrass Tree)
The large (10 in) caudex produces long, tapering grey-green leaves half an inch wide. With age, this succulent plant forms a stout trunk.
Native to the mountains of the Sierra Madre in the State of Durango, Eastern Mexico. Photographed in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, RBG Kew.

Nolina erumpens

Nolina erumpens  S. Watson 1879 (Foothill Bear Grass)
a succulent plant with 5ft tall seed heads in the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend National Park, Texas, in October 2003. The leaves remain erect and have finely toothed margins. The inflorescence and therefore seed heads is carried above the leaves. Growing at an altitude of around 6000ft above sea level, this individual must have a degree of cold resistance and tolerate occasional snow.
This species is distributed through West Texas into Mexico.

Nolina matapensis

Nolina matapensis  Wiggins 1940 (Sonoran Tree Beargrass)
This succulent plant grows a trunk up to 25 ft tall, branching near the top and widening at the base. A felting of old leaves usually hides the dark fissured bark. The trunk carries large disorderly tufts of long blue-green grass-like leaves tapering to a point and with finely toothed margins. The inflorescence is a plume of numerous small creamy-white flowers.
Nolina matapensis is found in woodlands from 3500 - 6000 ft in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico and occasionally seen as an ornamental in Mexico and the South-West USA. It is suitable for cultivation in Mediterranean climates and reported to tolerate mild frosts. Photographed in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona.

Nolina microcarpa

Nolina microcarpa  S. Watson 1879 (Beargrass, sacahuista)
in the Coronado National Forest, Southern Arizona. This stemless succulent plant has long narrow arching leaves with distinct fine teeth on their margins and a flattened keel on their underside.
Nolina microcarpa is distributed through high grasslands and forests (3500 - 5500ft) of Southern Arizona to West Texas and into Mexico. It will survive considerable dry cold.
Left: Clumps of Beargrass in high grassland of the Davis Mountains. Almost all the plants in this landscape are monocotyledons. A variety of grasses carpet the landscape between succulent Nolinas, Dasylirions and Yuccas. A few hardy Opuntias (dicotyledons) also survive here.

Nolina sp.

Left: Nolina sp. flowering outside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Although North-American Nolina species are dry-cold hardy, the continual wetness of an English winter is a challenge and a very well-drained soil is essential. However, this specimen has flourished for many years.
The cacti were bedded out for a temporary summer display.

Nolina palmeri

Nolina palmeri  S. Watson 1879 (Palmer's Bear Grass)
This succulent plant is found in the mountains of Baja California. There is no trunk or a very short one.
Photographed in the Temperate House, RBG Kew.

Nolina parryi

Nolina parryi  S. Watson 1879 (Parry's Nolina)
is distributed through Southern California into Baja California below 3000ft. Often seen as a ground-hugging clump of fine olive-coloured leaves, it can develop a short 6ft trunk with age. Leaf margins are furnished with tiny sharp teeth. The 6 ft inflorescence is a panicle of small cream-coloured flowers and a group of flowering plants makes a superb display. It is surprising that Nolina parryi is not grown more often as a drought-tolerant succulent plant in dry landscaping.
Seen here growing among rocks in the Joshua Tree Park, California.
more images of Nolina parryi

Nolina parryi ssp. wolfii

Nolina parryi subsp. wolfii  Munz 1950
flowering near the Arizona Joshua Tree Park Drive, Northern Arizona. The 15 ft trunk and 12 ft inflorescence of this sub-species are both substantially larger than those of Nolina parryi. It is regarded by some as a variety of Nolina bigelovii. This succulent plant occurs in California at higher altitudes up to 5500ft with a limited distribution in Northern Arizona. Considering its range, it is also likely to be more tolerant of cold.

Nolina texana
Nolina texana

Nolina texana  S. Watson 1879 (Devil's Shoestring, Texas sacahuista)
is a very similar species to Nolina erumpens but slightly smaller with narrower leaves, found from central Texas into Arizona and Southwards into Mexico. The inflorescence is produced down among the leaves instead of rising above it. Unfortunately, plant size depends much on the local environment.
Left: This small succulent plant with narrower leaves than Nolina erumpens could be interpreted as Nolina texana. It was growing at a lower altitude in the "Green Gulch" of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Left: Nolina texana
Flowering in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona.