There are at least 270 different types of agave plants. They are a member of the Asparagaceae family, sub-genre Agavoideae, genus agave. This makes them a distant relative of glauca grass trees, aloe vera, tree aloes, and yucca, with an emphasis on “distant.” To break that relationship down, most agave are monocots – putting up one shoot from a seed; they are succulents; and they prefer a warm, moderately dry climate. They are, however, uniquely different from the other Asparagaceae.
In appearance, they are ground-hugging rosettes of fleshy leaves. The color is generally a grayish green, but can vary by specific species. The leaves are rimmed with sharp spikes, and the juice is moderately toxic as a means of preventing animals from consuming the tender leaves.
Self-preservation is important to the agave. One of its folk names is “century plant” because it takes an exceptionally long time to grow to maturity. It usually does not take one hundred years, however, and the actual growth time will vary from plant to plant. Even so, protecting itself is important to its survival.
Once mature, the agave will put up a single bloom stalk. This stalk will appear suddenly and grow rapidly, blooming out into a color and shape consistent with the particular variety. Meanwhile, two other things will be happening, in most cases: the parent plant will put out little baby plants called bulbils, and it will begin to die. Or to put it another way, one plant, one bloom, perhaps several smaller plants.
The various types of agave make striking feature plants, perfect for low-water gardens. They are good companions for taller low-water plants, for sedge, and for cacti. They are available in several sizes, so be sure to check the mature plant size against your available space.
Agave has an amazing history. It has been cultivated in Mexico for hundreds of years. The Aztecs called it “gift of the gods” and used it to sweeten and flavor drinks. They also used agave to make pulque, a fermented drink. Agave needs processed with heat before it can be consumed because it contains saponins, a substance that can irritate the inside of the consumer’s mouth and throat. In some cases, it can cause swelling. Because of this, Agave plants should not be located where pets might be tempted to nibble on them.
But, back to history. Cristóbal de Oñate, and conquistador under the Spanish King Carlos I, is credited with causing pulque to be distilled into a spirit called Mezcal. Or it might have been first fermented by Filipino sailors, who also had pot stills. What is known for sure is that Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, 75 years later, would turn the distilling the drink into a commercial operation, calling the spirit he marketed “tequila.”
For the native people, agave had many more uses than just being fermented into pulque. The sharp spines that grow along the edges of the leaves were used as needles or pins. In addition to being used as sweetener, or fermented to make an alcoholic beverage, the Aztecs regarded it as a medicinal that was good for everything from indigestion to snake bites, and a few things in between. Modern analysis reveals that it is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, which would certainly make it good for healing wounds.
Once the sap is extracted, the people harvesting and processing the sap would be left with the pulp. This could be further processed to make thread, rope, and even a type of paper. In some areas, the tough leaves were used as thatching for roofs, and the fibers woven into cloth. The roots of the agave can be cooked and made into an edible paste. The flowers can also be dried, processed and eaten, as can the flower head. The stalk is considered to be excellent fire starter material, while large, unbroken stalks can be made into musical instruments. Oil extracted from the plant can be used as a conditioning shampoo. With all these uses, it is easy to see why the Ancient Aztecs called agave “gift from the gods”!