What if, on a wilderness hike, you rounded a corner found an ancient garden? It happened. There it was on an isolated shelf up in the sandstone cliffs northwest of Sedona. Something caught my eye about a family of picturesque agave growing under a juniper tree. I stopped, set up the tripod and photographed the little scene.
Commonly called Century Plant, it was thought that the plant grew a tall flowering stalk only after a century of life. Spanish Dagger is another name, not hard to imagine why. Its sometimes called “cowboy killer” by jeep tour guides. Not good for a poor cowboy falling off his horse.
Now my brother, Scott, once caught the needle-sharp point of an agave spike in his shin while hiking in Sedona for the first time. On a canyon trail he was looking around at the red rocks. Wham. When he returned home to the Northwest, the doctor he visited didn’t have much information on the plant, whether it was poisonous, or how to cure the pain. He said his leg hurt for nearly a week. The agave is not the friendliest of plants.
The common agave around Sedona is the Parry’s agave. Its a true desert plant, dangerous, self-protective, yet edible. The center core is like an artichoke heart. Cut off the leaves. Dig up the roots. Roast it for three or four days. Make the mush into a nutritious dried cake. The original Clif Bar.
The Parry’s agave is pale green with very straight, stiff spikes. But the one that had caught my eye was different. Darker green. Softer leaves. And a bulge in the dagger blade halfway down.
My friend Daniel Maddux and I were exploring an unnamed canyon searching for small ruins, and a particular set of handprint pictographs. We found both but what I didn’t expect to find was a rare plant purposely traded from Mexico and raised as food in northern Arizona.
Agave phillipsiana is this rare plant’s name. It was first only known to be in four sites within Grand Canyon. The sites are all near pre-Columbian dwellings. There have recently been more isolated clusters found in the Verde Valley, in the Prescott area, and north of Globe, Arizona, in the Tonto Basin.
This unique plant was given its species name by Wendy Hodgson of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. She is Senior Research Botanist and Herbarium Curator, but happy to just be called Wen.
Wen named the plant Agave phillipsiana honoring Arthur M. Phillips, III, a University of Arizona scientist, yet also the respected author of the layman’s guidebook Grand Canyon Wildflowers.
Hodgson calls these domesticated agave a “living archaeological artifact.” She estimates that the remnant crop was cultivated by the ancient Sinagua Indians in A.D. 1000–1150.
Finding the human touch of the ancient Indians is always exciting. Whether its a cliff dwelling tucked out of sight or handprints stenciled onto a sandstone alcove, their centuries-old marks haunt the mind. Their time in the red rock canyons is palpable. An ancient garden is still alive.