Calibanus hookeri (2008)

PhotoBy Eric Driskill (March 2008)

Calibanus belongs to the Agavaceae family and is closely related to the genus Nolina, varying principally in its floral characteristics. It was first described in the 19th century, named after Shakespeare’s character Caliban, a deformed monster who was the slave of Prospero in The Tempest.

Calibanus is a monotypic genus whose plants form large hemispherical caudices with sizes reported from 16 inches to “as large as a Volkswagen.” In a collection, you will more likely find plants in the 16-inch to 3-feet range. The caudices, covered in corky bark, have a rocklike appearance that matches the boulder-strewn landscape where the plants grow in north central Mexico near San Luis Potosi.

Calibanus plants are topped with long, grasslike, bluish leaves, which can be up to 3 feet long. When unmolested in habitat, they do a good job of concealing the caudices entirely. The leaves are used not only to thatch houses but also used to scour dishes.

One member of our society has one of the nicest examples of Calibanus I have ever seen, with shorter leaves and more numerous leaf sites. I believe he told me he accomplished this by trimming the leaves. I have since started grazing the leaves on both small plants in my collection with my fingers firmly crossed.

Calibanus is a dioecious species with male and female plants that bear minute pink flowers on a slightly pendulous stalk up to 12 inches long. Plants are grown from seed. I have read they can tolerate temperatures down to 15 degrees F for short periods, although I have never had mine down to that frigid temperature.

In my experience, these are very forgiving plants which are a must for any serious caudex collection. They are botanically quite odd, with complete suppression of aerial branches and retention of perennial but very xerophytic foliage.

I have seen larger specimens for sale, but more often you will find golf ball- to softball-size plants for sale. With plants that size, I doubt you will have to worry about wintering anything the size of a Volkswagen any time soon!