Looking for Agave parviflora on the Mexican border

The first field trip of my recent jaunt to Arizona was to Agua Fria National Monument north of Phoenix. The second, a couple of days later, took me in the opposite direction, right down to the Mexican border. My goal was to find Agave parviflora in habitat. As you will see below, my quest was successful. In fact, I was blown away by the scenic beauty of this sparsely populated part of Arizona.

Rolling hills along Arizona State Route 289

Here’s a Google map showing the general area I visited:

Most of the population centers in this part of Arizona are along the Interstate 19 corridor. The area I visited is to the west of I-19. After exiting the freeway, I didn’t see another town, not even a small settlement—just magnificent rolling hills, often rock-studded, and desert grasslands that seemed to go on forever.

Closest to Interstate 19, the dominant succulent is Yucca madrensis (above and below), a solitary species up to 6 ft. in height.

Pretty quickly, Dasylirion wheeleri, aka sotol or desert spoon, takes over, in some places growing in large numbers.

Dasylirion wheeleri is a common landscaping plant in Arizona and the warmer parts of California—even our neighbors across the street have one—but seeing it in habitat was special. For some reason, I’d imagined it growing in the open desert, not in grasslands.

Signs like the one below were a vivid reminder of the political and social reality along the border:

After a few more miles, I got off the paved highway and continued on dirt roads. The only other person I saw was a Border Patrol agent in a pickup truck. I really did get to within a stone's throw of the Mexican border.

I pulled over often to take photos of the scenery. As had been the case in Agua Fria National Monument, there were no manmade sounds and, aside from the road, no signs of human presence at all. The peace and tranquility out in these grasslands was beyond words,

Dasylirion wheeleri

More Dasylirion wheeleri

Dasylirion wheeleri flower stalk with seeds

Looking south towards Mexico: open grasslands and rolling hills

The dominant agave in the southeastern part of Arizona is Agave palmeri. Like Agave chrysantha in central Arizona, it’s a highly variable species, with some specimens reaching almost 5 ft. in height and width. The plants I saw were far smaller, some just a couple of feet across, especially the plants growing on rocks where moisture and nutrients are scarce.

Opuntia santa-rita next to an Agave palmeri

Agave palmeri with ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Speaking of ocotillo, finding it here was another surprise. I’d only ever seen it growing in bare dirt, not in the middle of an endless expanse of grass.

A few more views towards the south:

Another surprise was the scarcity of prickly pears (Opuntia) and chollas (Cylindropuntia) and the complete absence of saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea). In most parts of central and southern Arizona, they are everywhere. Here, not so much. Instead, I made a far cooler cactus find, the rainbow hedgehog (Echinocereus rigidissimus):

This cactus, especially the even more colorful subspecies rubrispinus from western Chihuahua, is a popular collector plant. That’s easy to understand when you look at the flowers (this is my friend Justin’s plant). Seeing it in habitat was one of the highlights of this outing.

After five or six miles of dirt road, which had taken me an hour because I stopped so often for photos, I finally found what I had come to see: Agave parviflora. This is one of the smallest agave species, with adult rosettes maxing out at 12 inches, often at half that. With its compact size, prominent white markings on the leaves, and bristly fibers along the leaf margins, it’s a highly ornamental agave that fits into even the smallest garden. It looks great in containers and in the ground; place it in the very front so it doesn’t get overwhelmed by larger plants.

Agave parviflora has a restricted distribution in southern Arizona and across the border in Sonora. It grows in rocky areas or on rocky slopes in open grassland and oak woodland and typically forms small clusters. The species name parviflora means “with small flowers,” and it indeed has the smallest flowers in the entire genus. Its flower stalk is equally diminutive, often not much taller than 3 or 4 ft. As I now know from personal experience, looking for flower stalks is actually the best way to find Agave parviflora.

Old flower stalk tells you where to look

There it is!

Other clumps were out in the open and much easier to spot.

Each clump I saw had about half a dozen rosettes, some flowered out and dead, others in their prime.

These were the prettiest of them all:

Another colony of Agave parviflora on a small rock wall:

While I didn’t see Agave parviflora in huge numbers, the fact that I found some growing right by the road suggests that there are many more in the grasslands and on the rocky slopes beyond.

Agave parviflora isn’t as common in the nursery trade as it should be, but you can order seeds from Mesa Garden.

On the drive back to Tucson, I didn’t stop as often, but I still pulled over when something interesting caught my eye. Here are a few best-of shots taken on the return leg of my outing:

Agave palmeri

A particularly picturesque Arizona white oak (Quercus arizonica)

Seven ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens)

Lone desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Gaggle of desert spoons, some with inflorescences

I’ve been to many places in Arizona, but this area had been terra incognita until now. I had no expectations beyond finding Agave parviflora, and I was blown away by how beautiful the landscape was. There’s so much more to explore, and I can’t wait to go back. Maybe next time I’ll rent a higher clearance vehicle for a day or two to better navigate the many dirt roads.


© Gerhard Bock, 2022. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Well suddenly I need an Agave parviflora, a species I knew nothing about until now. It's wonderful! So did the border patrol agent stop to inquire about your activities? I thought you might enjoy this post on dasylirion from Plant Delights: https://blog.jlbg.org/so-long-sotols-in-the-spirit-of-plant-extinction/

    1. Parviflora is awesome because it's small AND beautiful. A perfect little jewel. Plant Delights says it's hardy to zone 7b.

      Thanks for the link to the Plant Delights post on dasylirions. I had no idea there were so many species! I have three; acrotrichum is my favorite because of the fraying leaf tips.

  2. Gorgeous landscape--the oaks are wonderful. Parviflora really is a choice species. I'd be a little uneasy with migrants, border patrol, smugglers, anti-immigrant pseudo-military activists--but seems like you had the whole fantastic place all to yourself.

    The Echinocereus was a special find!

  3. Yes, that Echinocereus was certainly a terrific find and so happy you found Agave parviflora that you were looking for. My husband Kurt and I have been down to Rio Rico many times, but sure never got to where you were. I just love seeing it, Gerhard! I need to find Agave parviflora for myself. Not sure it is sold often here, but maybe at Arizona Cactus Sales I can find it!

  4. It's not very often you can escape the noise from any human activity. I love it but for some people it makes them extremely uncomfortable. Had no idea there was such a diversity of landscapes in Arizona. It's not all just red soil and rocks. The little A parviflora looks similar to A. victoria reginae

  5. Sorry, I’m a blog behind, but I wasI was very interested in your account of your desert museum Palo verde. I have a three year old that got plenty of water and is gigantic. I was very concerned about it in the bad wind. It is totally exposed to wind and has grown way over toward the south sun. It leans so far I really thought it might go over. It has never made any shoots so it is apparently not on grafted root stock. It survived intact. Looks like you are right about the graft being a weak point.

  6. Amazing scenery and a successful hunt for that lovely Agave parviflora.
    The silence can be startling and for some difficult to endure. I find it uplifting and spiritual, like visiting a sacred place.


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