By Giselle Blythe
A signature silhouette of American deserts, Agave has played a central role in supporting the lives of Native Americans for centuries. About 200 species of are found from south-western United States throughout Mexico and in Central and tropical America.
The plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves generally ending in a sharp point and with a spiny margin. Each rosette is monocarpic, meaning it grows slowly to flower only once after many years, when a tall stem grows from the center of the rosette and bears a large number of short tubular flowers.
Many species of Agave are bat pollinated and produce musky perfumes as attractants. Others produce odors to attract insects.
After development of fruit and the original plant dies, but pups are frequently produced from the base, which become new plants.
Every part of the Agave plant is used for something. The heart and leaves are roasted and eaten freshly cooked, or may be dried for storage. The flower stalk is eaten roasted, boiled or raw. Flowers may be use for adornment or boiled for food. Seed is used for decorative bead making or ground into flour. Honey is produced by carpenter bees that nest in old seed heads. Moth larvae found inside plants are a delicacy. The fresh root is grated and mixed with hot water to create a lathering soap or shampoo. A dried leaf tea is still used for indigestion water retention and arthritis. Mexiote is the papery cuticle peeled from leaf surfaces (raw or cooked) used for food wrapping or paper.
Aguamiel or “honey water” is a sweet sap tapped from the core of the living plant and boiled like maple syrup. When fermented it becomes Pulque, lightly alcoholic. When a similar product is distilled after fermentation it becomes Mescal or Sotol. The entire plant is harvested and the core processed to make Tequila, Raicilla or Bacanora. It can only be called Tequila if made from the Blue Agave within the Tequila region of Mexico, near Guadalajara.
The leaves contain strong lengthwise fibers that are harvested for many purposes. Some of the best species for fiber are A. lechugilla, sisalana, fourcroydes and cantala. The finer fibers from the central growth may be used for nets, woven clothing, rugs or bags; while coarser fiber from outer leaves is used for rope, sisal, brooms, bowstrings, sandals, baskets, etc. A ready-made needle and thread can be pulled from a leaf spine tip with the long fiber attached to it.
To easily extract the fibers, the leaves are cooked in a pit fire until very tender, then and pounded and scraped to remove the flesh from the fiber.
But wait, there’s more! Other uses for Agave include musical instruments, face paint, hairbrushes paintbrushes, and scrub brushes with built-in soap, arrow shafts, fish poison (A. lechngilla), baked cakes for body armor, poultices (sapogens are a precursor to cortisone), ethanol (bio-diesel), Wind break, fire fuel.
HOW can anyone possibly live without growing Agave?
Look for mature Agave specimens growing in the Conservatory Cactus House.