Like ocotillo, sotol is one of the most easily identifiable plants in the Trans-Pecos region of the Lone Star State. The plant’s tall and singular flower stalks are the most distinguishing feature of this hearty native. Growing upwards of ten to fifteen feet, these towering stalks look like periscopes rising above the surrounding sea of scrub and rock.
1. The sotol flower stalk has a variety of uses.
Ancient peoples like the Lipan, Chiricahua, and Mescalero Apache depended on the sotol to meet a variety of needs. The tall and straight flower stalks were used to make spear shafts, knife handles, digging sticks, and tepee poles. However, perhaps the most important use of the stalk was to make fire drills and fireboards, also called hearth boards, for starting friction fires. Sotol stalks also make excellent walking sticks and are used in the construction of corrals, house roofs, and other structures.
2. Sotol is a plant with a heart.
The heart of the sotol plant has been used for generations as a food source for humans and animals alike. In times of need, ranchers know that they can rely on the heart of sotol for cow fodder. However, this requires trimming back the armada of saw-edged leaves so that the animals can access the sugary and starchy pith of the plant.
Sotol heart was also a major staple food for ancient peoples. They discovered that the spongy sotol hearts are edible raw but tasted better if roasted slowly. The leaf bases can be eaten in a fashion similar to artichoke bracts. Ancient people also pounded sotol hearts into a paste that, when dried, could be mixed with nuts and fruits or ground into a flour.
3. Fashion by sotol.
Native Americans used sotol leaves to weave mats and baskets and even durable sandals. These resourceful desert dwellers also used the fibers of the sotol leaves to make many varieties of twisted cordage. More recent uses of the leaves include making ropes, roof thatching, and hats.
4. Drunk on sotol.
Hispanic peoples of the region learned to make sotol mescal — a potent alcohol drink made from the heart of the plant. One modern naturalist compared the drink to a “mixture of hair oil and gasoline.” Sotol mescal became a common alcoholic beverage among the frontier population of west Texas. During the Prohibition, sotol mescal became a leading article of contraband.
5. A source of fuel.
The dead leaves of the sotol plant make an excellent fuel for fires in places where both trees and fire wood is scarce. The leaves burn rapidly and brightly, making them an excellent source of fuel for an emergency fire. The green leaves of the plant can be used for providing smoke for emergency signaling.