The following article was produced as a teaching aid for the Gardening Unplugged: Agaves and Humans talk given by Dr. Patrick McMillan, Director of Gardens and Horticulture for Juniper Level Botanic Garden. This is part of our Gardening Unplugged series, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days.
Agave and humans have co-evolved together for thousands of years. In fact, plants in the genus Agave, vie with Wheat (Triticum), Figs (Ficus), and Pomegranate (Punica) as the oldest cultivated plants on earth. Agave has been utilized by Mesoamericans for at least 10,000 years. Domestication and cultivation of Agave was most likely centered in Mexico and entire suites of species including the familiar Agave americana and A. salmiana were so widely cultivated that we don’t know where their native range was or if they are in fact domestic species. In the desert Southwest of the United States, five species of Agave have been described that are the product of ancient hybridization cultivation by Native Americans and today persist near long abandoned agricultural sites. Agave were so important to central Mexican cultures that the goddess Mayahuel (pronounced ma - jawhel) is often portrayed as rising from the center of the Agave (maguey) plant holding a rope made from the fibers. This fertility goddess is consistently associated with the plant.
Why was the Agave so important? Because it had so many uses – it was central to nearly every aspect of life. A few of the uses are outlined below:
Food – The “piña,” which is the crown of the Agave after the leaves have been removed is roasted and becomes a sweet source of sugary sap and a starch-rich vegetable. Agave can be grown through harsh droughts without irrigation and thus a dependable source of starch. The sweet, nectar-rich flower buds are also consumed.
Aquamiel – When the core of an Agave that is preparing to flower is cut, it quickly produces large amounts (up to 2 liters/day) of sweet watery sap. In some species, this can be consumed immediately as a sweet beverage and as a source of water when other sources are scarce. It is also the basis for all the alcoholic beverages produced from Agave.
Pulque (octli) – The sweet sap that collects in a hollowed-out crown of the Agave quickly ferments to produce an alcoholic beverage, basically “Agave beer.” This was one of the most widely consumed alcoholic beverages in Mexico prior to the introduction of European beer. Pulque is still made in Mexico today but accounts for less than 10% of the alcohol consumed. During pre-Columbian times, pulque was considered sacred and only consumed by the elite class of citizens.
Mescal and Tequila – The distillation of fermented Agave sap results in mescal. Tequila is essentially the same product but is produced by roasting the “piña” of a specific species (Agave tequilana) for 36 – 48 hours and then shredding the pulp to extract the sweet juice, which is fermented and then distilled. To be considered tequila this process must happen in and around the city of Tequila in Jalisco state Mexico, otherwise it is mescal.
Fiber – The incredibly strong fibers (vessel elements) of Agave leaves have been used as a source of cordage (rope) for centuries. Sisal and Henequen are still among the most common twine materials used today. Softer fibers come from younger leaves and the fiber has also been used for cloth and thus clothing, rugs, mats, roofing, insulating materials and upholstery.
Paper – Paper was once made from the fibers of Agave, though this was abandoned in the fairly distant past.
Needles – The terminal spines are incredibly durable and easily dried for use as sewing needles. Additionally, spines were traditionally used for bloodletting ceremonies and even disciplining children!
Soap – Soap was produced from several species because of the high level of smilagenin.
Miscellaneous uses – some Agave were used as medicine in poultices, salves, and other applications. Some species were even utilized to make fish poison for rather unsportsmanlike fishing.
One of my favorite stories about the discovery of pulque involves the Tlacuache (opossum) using its rather human-like hands to dig into the heart of the Agave to extract the sap (which often naturally ferments in the core). In doing so, the Tlacuache became the first drunk!