Agave, a plant of many uses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAztecs, Anasazi, Hohokam, and the Tohono O’odham, have used the agave for fiber, food, medicine, adult beverages, and building materials for thousands of years. The earliest known use was in the Techuacán Valley of Mexico 10,000 years ago. Agaves have been used by people in southern Arizona for at least 4,000 years both as a wild plant and a cultivated plant.  A Hohokam agave field located in the South Mountain bajada at Awatukee, near Phoenix, has been dated at 700 A.D.

Agaves, sometimes called century plants, are succulents like cacti.  Their normal life span is usually between 10 and 30 years, not a century.  At the end of their time, they shoot up a stalk which is often quick growing, as much as one foot per day.  Agaves make a stalk just once in their lifetime, then die.  Of the at least 40 species, there are two main groups, those with branched inflorescences pollinated principally by bats, and those with unbranched flower spikes, pollinated mainly by insects and hummingbirds.  Agaves reproduce from seeds, by pupping from the roots, and some, such as the octopus agave, produce plantlets on the flower stalk instead of seeds.

Agave2 stalkFiber

Fiber, often called sisal, is extracted from the spiked leaves.  The cut leaves were allowed to dry or were baked, then pounded to loosen the pulp which was combed out with a sharp stick and washed away with water. By the way, the pulp in some species is acidic enough to cause dermatitis but baking reduces the acidity.  The cleaned fibers were used to make clothing, rope, baskets, and brushes.  The end spines could be used for needles, and with careful extraction, came with thread attached.  I have used this for an emergency field sewing kit.

Agaves have been exported around the world.  I have seen plantations in South Africa where agaves are grown for sisal fiber.

Food

After the leaves were cut off, the heart of the plant (imaging a giant artichoke) was roasted yielding a sweet nutritious food that is slightly slimy and  tastes like molasses.  This food could be wrapped in the skin of the leaves and stored. Cooking is essential because otherwise the heart of the agave is very poisonous.  Flower stalks were also eaten but could not be stored.

The juice of the agave heart was boiled down into a sweet syrup. Apparently the nectar is also used.  I have a bottle of “organic blue agave sweetener” from Trader Joe’s which claims to be made from the nectar.

Drink

The juice could be fermented (by spitting into it) into pulque, a beer-like drink.  It wasn’t until the Europeans arrived with their knowledge of distillation that the agave juice was made into tequila and other distilled spirits.  It is my understanding that tequila is a proprietary name and only spirits distilled from the blue agave can be called tequila.  Other agave spirits are called mescal or bocanora. Some sources say that the Mescalero Apaches of southern Arizona were named after their extensive use of the “mescal” agave.

Medicine

The juice or syrup also was used medicinally.  The agave contains polysaccharides which are bactericidal, and saponins and sapogenins that have antibiotic, fungicidal, and antiviral properties.  Saponin in Agave schottii is being investigated for cancer treatment.

Building materials

The stalks can be used for a variety of building purposes and they make good, light, strong walking sticks.

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4 comments

  1. I recently took a garden tour of the Westward Look where we were shown how to grind off the pulp of an agave leaf, leaving the fibers which can be braided into a rope to be used for jewelry or baskets. Pretty amazing! I still have to figure out how to tell an agave from a yucca…

    1. Yuccas generally have thin flat leaves. They are not succulent like agaves which have thick leaves. Another possible confusion is with aloes which are succulent, but have no fibers. Aloes are generally eastern hemisphere plants, mainly African.

  2. Parry’s agave (Agave Parryi) is also known as the “Century Plant”, a name that has been given to many agave species. Parry’s agave is distinguished by its rounded leaves with a point at the tip that is dark brown or black. The plant can live more than twenty-five years before producing a bloom spike that ranges between twelve to twenty-five feet in height. The plant dies after blooming. Parry’s agave is native to the southwest United States and Mexico, and was used by native Americans as a source of soap, food, fiber, medicine and weapons. Its leaves contain extremely strong fibers that were often used as thread for sewing or woven together into rope.

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