Agaves can be thought of as another chain of “7-Elevens”.
The numerous members of the Agave family are all native to the New World. “Agave” is derived from the Greek word “agauos” (admirable). Agaves, the “admirable plants”, are the source of several commercial products, including tequila, the equally admirable national drink.
Known as “magueys” in Spanish, the plants have short stems with rosettes of elongated leaves. The spirally arranged leaves are thick and succulent for storing water and most leaves have sharp protective spines which makes agaves an excellent choice for planting as a hedge or “living fence” between fields.
Some agave species are known as “century” plants, a supposed allusion to the long time the plants may take to produce a single flowering stalk. While most agaves actually take from eight to twenty years to accumulate sufficient food reserves for their reproductive cycle to begin and their showy flowers to be produced, the flowering stalk is well worth waiting for. In some species, a huge candelabra of flowers will tower up to 20 feet or more above the ground. Some species die after they have flowered just once, while others produce (less spectacular) blooms almost every year.
Agaves are often mistakenly classed as cacti, leading many people to refer to tequila as “a drink made from cactus”, but while both agave and cacti species thrive in drier, more arid conditions, agaves are botanically unrelated to their thorny bedfellows.
The 170-plus species of agave in Mexico are the country’s original multi-purpose plants and for centuries people throughout the country have found many good uses for them – ranging from the improvisation of an instantaneous needle and thread (simply pull one of the spiky leaf-ends along the edge of the leaf), to fiber for making sandals, weaving clothes or compressing into paper, to various drinks, some involving fermentation and distillation, to soap and even as an instrument of punishment or torture. Please note that contact with fresh agave juice can cause skin reactions in some people and that injury from agave spines can be serious. Moreover, not all species are edible and the imbibing of any agave-derived drink is entirely at your own risk.
But there is no pleasure without risk and besides the innumerable brands of commercially-produced tequilas on the market, other drinks you may want to try include “aguamiel” (or “honey water”, the fresh unfermented juice which collects in the plant’s central cavity as it starts blooming), “pulque” (a fermented drink with an acquired taste, especially popular in central Mexico) and “mezcal” (a distilled drink, sometimes containing a maguey worm, from the state of Oaxaca).
The tequila industry in Mexico is huge and today, on hillsides across the state of Jalisco stands an army of millions of young blue-green agaves, proudly arraigned in neat symmetrical rows, all awaiting their turn to be hacked to bits and sacrificed to the cause of Mexico’s most popular drink. Strange as it may sound, bats play a major role in the tequila industry, since they are one of the primary pollinating agents of agaves. The geographical heart of the tequila industry is of course, the town of Tequila, 45 minutes drive west of Guadalajara, along highway 15.
Incidentally, most botanists place those strange-looking plants, the yuccas, in the agave family too. Most yuccas grow only slowly (some as little as an inch a year), yet some survive long enough to become large and positively tree-like.
Yuccas share an interesting symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with one particular kind of moth. The larva of the Pronuba moth feeds on the developing yucca seeds; to ensure that the seeds develop, the female moth gathers the sticky pollen of the yucca and carries it to another flower. After packing the pollen ball into the flower, the moth deposits her eggs there as well. On hatching, her larvae feed first on some of the seeds in the now developing fruit, before eating their way out of the fruit and falling to the ground to complete their life cycle. Meanwhile, the fruit, with its remaining viable seeds, matures. So, without the moth, the yucca would not be pollinated, but without the yucca being pollinated, the moth larvae would have nothing to eat and would likely become extinct. There’s a moral for us here somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is.
Some 40 species of yucca exist, including both branching and non-branching forms. Like agaves, yuccas are amazingly useful plants. Bees make use of their hollowed out trunks for hives, while campesinos utilize the spongy interiors of yucca “trees” as padding for the backs of pack animals. Yuccas’ large roots are used for soap, their leaves for fibre, and both their fruit and flowers are edible. The flowers may be served raw as salad or cooked in various ways, including being turned into a preserve.
If we should ever stop and wonder how the pre-Columbian peoples managed without supermarkets or shopping malls, they are probably looking down and wondering why we, with plant 7-Elevens like agaves and yuccas, really need Wal-Marts!
Copyright 2003 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.