Gardening Unplugged - Agaves and Humans: 10,000 Years of Co-evolution

Gardening Unplugged - Agaves and Humans: 10,000 Years of Co-evolution

w/ Dr. Patrick McMillan

By Published July 26, 2023

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Agave is one of the oldest cultivated plants with records dating back over 10,000 years. It was so important in Mesoamerican cultures that they had a goddess of Agave Mayahuel, that symbolized fertility. Agave fibers were used to produce rope, thread, and textiles and the starchy centers were cooked for food. In this fascinating lecture and demonstration our former Director of Gardens and Horticulture, Dr. Patrick McMillan, explores the historical and modern day uses (including terraforming) of the amazing Agave plant. This lecture was part of our free Gardening Unplugged series held each year at our Open Nursery and Garden Days.


Video Transcription

Well, my name is Patrick McMillan. I'm Director of Gardens and Horticulture here at Juniper Level and Plant Delights. My background is botany and that's what my PhD is in, and I've always been incredibly interested in the connections between our choices, people, plants, and culture. And so, it's going to be really fun to talk to you about agaves because this isn't something you can just do every day or just pick up and show people. It takes a lot of prep work to show you guys how agaves and people have sort of moved together through history. So, we've got a little staged area over here. If we want to walk over there, we'll take a look at some of the incredible uses. If you guys didn't get a handout but would like to read more about it there's lots that you can find online about it but there's also a cheat sheet here if you want to just become an agave and human use expert really, really quick. Yeah, feel free to grab one, yeah.

Okay, so the cheat sheet has something that really illustrates how important agaves have been to human beings over the years and it's the illustration right at the top. At the very top is this really interesting illustration that comes out of one of the codices. Do you guys know what a codex is? Have you heard of the Codex, Codices, the Codex? So, the Mayan, the Aztec, the Mexica, and the Toltec; all of these cultures in Mexico when the Spanish came into contact with them, they put together these massive volumes of illustrations of the cultures of the people. Not nearly enough because, of course, the next thing that happened was they wiped out most of the culture. Well, as much as they could of the people. Not as much as I think they wanted to because a lot of this survives today and is perpetuated right through modern American culture.

Codex Borbonicus - Wikicommons

So, on this wonderful illustration is… it's from the Codex Borbonicus, is a Mexican goddess named Mayahuel or Majawel, if you want to speak more in the Nahuatl dialect, Majawel. And she was one of the creation goddesses. She's almost always pictured blue, and she's almost always pictured rising out of the center of a maguey plant which is the agave plant. And that really illustrates how close the tie is. And then what I love about this is she's coming out of the agave plant and in her hand is rope. And it turns out rope came in that culture from the agave plant. Cordage came from the agave plant and, guess what? If you grew up on a farm like I did, you went out and you build up hay in the fall and when you use the twine to bail up the hay. Guess what that twine to this day is made out of? Agave. So, a lot of ropes, a lot of fabrics, a lot of uses for the fiber itself.

Agave as a Food Source

The agave plant was one of the first plants cultivated not just in the new world but around the world. We have archaeological records that push it back far beyond 9,000 years in Mesoamerica and in Mexico in particular, people were cultivating agave. So, what did they get from the agave? They called it the plant of life. It was so important that the creation goddess herself came out of the plant. So why was it so important? The fibers In Agave are among the strongest in the world every single species of the hundreds of species of agave have different quality fiber, different chemistry in the leaves, different chemistry in the core, different amounts of sugar in the sap. So from an agave plant you could make your clothing, you could make the roof for your house, you could make rugs for the floor of your home, you can make upholstery for your furniture, you made thread to sew the clothes that were made out of the fabric that you produced from the fibers from the agave, you made cordage, you could build bridges. The suspension bridges were made out of agave fibers. So, that's how strong they were. Strong enough you'd be willing to bet your life crossing Chocoman Gorge in central Mexico out of the fibers from the agave plant. The agave is also an incredible source of starch. So, food, sugars, things we need for energy, right. Every culture around the world has a bean and it has a starchy food that it has used for the development of civilizations, for the development of societies. And in Mesoamerica, agave was one of those plants. In Peru, in Chile, it was the papa. The potato. In Mexico agave was key to that. The great thing about cultivating agave is that you can plant it in a desert and never water it. So, it didn't require additional irrigation. The core of the agave, and just to illustrate that we have a core right here that we cut out today. And the core, when you look at the bottom of that thing after we've cut all the leaves off, it’s super heavy. That's where it stores most of the starch and the sugars for the plant and it's where it stores most of the water. So that thing weighs about 60 pounds. All that starch and water means that if you roast it, it becomes a good vegetable. One like a potato that can provide you with all the sugars and starch that you need in your diet.

Agave as Alcohol

Well, the other thing about the agave plant that's really interesting is if you mash up and eat that and you leave some left behind, you didn't eat the whole core, you have to roast it for 36 to 48 hours before it really becomes edible. They dig a big pit in the ground, put hot rocks and coals in the ground, and bury the agave in the pit for 36 to 48 hours before it is sweetened down and becomes soft. And if you mash it up and you eat it and you didn't eat all of it; guess what happens very quickly to all those sugars? They turn into alcohol. So, people learned very early that they turned into alcohol and actually tequila production, which is interesting because it's like the champagne of the Americas, tequila.

Roasted Agave Leaves - Juniper Level Botanic Garden

Tequila is produced from mashing what's called… well what does the base of that look like to you? What other veg, what other fruit looks like a pineapple? So, in Mexico guess what they call that? A pina. The agave pina when it's cut. So, when you mash that and you put it in a vat, let it ferment into agave wine, and then you would distill that agave wine and that becomes tequila. But it's only tequila. This is just like champagne. It's only tequila if it's made from what's called the Blue Agave, Agave tequilana, which has little narrow upright leaves and grows in the state of Jalisco in Mexico near the town of Tequila. If it's not distilled in the town or the region of tequila from the Agave tequilana it's not tequila. You grow a tequila in Ecuador and make tequila from it it's mezcal. So, if you wonder what the difference between tequila and mezcal is when you go to the liquor store and you see them both, the difference is either the species of agave that it was made from or the region of Mexico where it was distilled. Because mezcal is mostly distilled in Oaxaca and tequila all comes from the Mexican state of Jalisco around the city of Tequila. So that's that process and you have no idea how much work it was to get that one pina this morning. I'm telling you, I'm glad we did it really early on. But we'll show you last the pulque because it's kind of detailed and we haven't cut it yet we're going to actually cut it for you here and show you the process of that. But the first alcohol that was discovered by the Mesoamericans was an alcohol that today still represents 10% of the alcohol that's drank in Mexico and every single village every single region has its own recipe its own flavoring of peppers and herbs that it puts into the mix. But pulque is essentially tequila. It is essentially agave wine and it's made by a very different process than producing tequila. It's made by collecting the aguamiel, the agave nectar, from the core of a plant that's flowering and it's very cool.

Traditional Method of Making Rope and Cordage from Agave Leaves

So, we'll show you that in a minute but let's talk about another very important product, the leaves of the agave themselves. So even when you're cutting the leaves off of the pinya to eat it, you can take the leaves, throw them on top of a fire for a few minutes, on the coals of a fire. And what that does is it turns the hard parts, the rigid parts of the leaves, the soft tissue really into goo. Because what you want out of this leaf are the fibers. So, we have some that we've roasted for you right here and Jason will demonstrate for you how to actually remove the soft tissue and how it was traditionally done.

So, you can see that soft tissue scrapes right off. And a very primitive method would have been to use just a rock. Today, agave fiber like Agave sisilana is… the fibers are removed with a stripping tool. Basically, two machetes that they bang into the side of a tree and then just pull the leaf through the two blades, and it scrapes all the soft tissue off, and you end up with just the fibers. So, look, see what he's got there left over now when he scrapes the back side of that are these fibers. And the species that he's working with right now, and I can split this up and pass some around here for you guys to feel and see, these are the fibers from Agave funkiana. Don't you love that? The funky agave. Yeah, Agave funkiana. And Agave funkiana makes terrible rope but Agave funkiana, and here feel it and pass it along, it's kind of very interesting isn't it. And it's soft and these are smaller threads than you would get from other species like the one that we have in the fire here. The one we have on the fire is a hybrid actually, but it contains one of the fiber producing ones which is pseudoferox, which is also one of the phuket ones. So, the fiber here is very different. When you feel this, right, it's very coarse. It's very stiff. I don't know, I got any farmers in here that have ever dealt with bailing twine? Yeah, well I'm going to have you… but you're going to smell this. You're going to see what it smells like. because you remember that smell when you're putting up hay and you smelled it? it's exactly… that's exactly bailing twine. it's whatever hay barn in the world smells like it. smells like sessile. Smells like the bailing twine. Isn't that neat? All right, so this is the product, the first product you get after this not very it… doesn't take long. Like a few minutes to roast the leaves, a few minutes for us to scrape away these, and then you've got to change this into either fabric right or cordage. And so, I think we'll change this into cordage today since this is making terrible fabric and I don't have a loom. So, what we'll do, we fluff up those fibers a bit and then Jason, by the way this is Jason. He's one of our gardeners here. Incredibly talented gardener and incredibly talented at coming up with little devices. So, he gets online, he said he looks, and he finds this thing called the paravia, a spinner which is used traditionally to spin cordage and essentially all you really have to do with this is attach the cordage to it. Ready? Yep, go for it.

So now we have rope. And what you can do with this rope… and this rope, let me tell you. I mean, we've got strong guys here. Feel this. Feel the rope. Yeah, feel the tensile strength of that? Oh yeah, it's unbelievable. It's unbelievable. Now what we would do with this cordage now that we have a single strand is we would take that strand and we'd remove it from the top. And then what we would do is double it. We'd Loop it around like this. And we would spin it again and what will happen is it'll spin that, look at that, end of the rope that you buy at the store. And that rope each, agave fiber from this plant has about 15 psi, pounds per square inch strength. So, this probably has a thousand, fifteen hundred pounds per square inch strength to it. And you could build a bridge out of that and walk across it. So that's the process of making rope with the agave.

Fabricating Needles and Fabric from the Leaves of Agave

Now to make fabric, if we had a loom and we could make fabric with the agave. Look what happened to my threaded one. I had a threaded needle here, but it blew off I bet it's on the ground. Oh, it's going to be attached to a string like this so you don't need anything but an agave to make your clothing because what you can do… agave have these wonderful spines on the tips of their leaves okay and those spines, oh you found it yeah thank you, so you use one spine. I mean you need no other tool but the agave plant. Use one spine to stick a hole through the second spine, we punch a hole through the second spine. You take a thread from one of the soft species like Agave sicilana and thread through and then tie a sewing knot on one side. And agave needles are pretty sharp. You can go right through the clothing. You could sew yourself agave clothing. Of course, this is a big needle, and we would use a much smaller spine to do it. but and then look right so everything you need to make your clothes in one plant. I know it's a big fat needle like that showed it. We would never use such a large thing to sew with but it's better to show you with. You understand why agaves were so important to people that were dealing with living in a very arid climate. Everything they needed for life was right there.

Extracting Aguamiel from an Agave Core

So, we'll show you one of the last things we'll talk about today and again Jason who has much more talent, strength, and youth on his side than I do is going to cut through the core of the agave. Now one thing you want to be careful with agaves, the sap contains sapogenins. So, until you roast the core, if we touch the stuff coming out of the core, it'll burn your skin, blister it. And if you get it in your eye, like I just did, it's irritating as can be. So you’ve got to be careful with it until it’s dry and washed with the fibers or until it's been baked. Now what the process of pulque production does, is we choose an adult agave that's starting to send up a flower spike. You can tell because the leaves become very crowded and shorter as it's starting to send up a flower spike. And you cut away leaves to get to the center of the plant. You don't pull the plant out of the ground. You don't mash it up. It's going to be done on the living plant because we can extract a lot more liquid from the living plant than we ever could from mashing up the core itself.

Agaves are related to asparagus. So, when you get down to the core you start to see it looks a little bit like it's off of an asparagus, Asparagaceae. It does. It smells exactly like asparagus when you get down into the middle of thing. So, he's going to cut all the way across that core. And remember that core is where all of the liquid is being pushed up into the plant through the phloem, where all the sap is. And that's what we want when we're collecting the aguamiel. So, in this process he's going to cut off the terminal bud and you can see how many leaves are in there. How much is… it's just incredible.

Agave after coring - Juniper Level Botanic Garden

Yeah, when you get that off show the folks because it's just bizarre to see hundreds of little layers, like an onion, that are in there. And then we cut a cup into the base of the bud. A deep cup. Oh yeah, there we go. Isn't that wild Really wild, right. Yep, we just scooped that, scoop it out right in the center. Yeah and then what we do after we have the hole scooped out is we fold the leaf that he's left behind it. We’ll score the back of that leaf and fold it over top of the hole. The agave, if you have an agave that's in the process of starting to produce a flower bud. Most of the blue… most of the agaves that are used for this, which are again like Agave Americana the great big tall blue one and Agave salmiana. Those two species can produce up to two liters of liquid per day.

Extracting Aquamiel to Make Pulque

We have one of our workers worked here how many years Margarita been here? 24 years. One of our longest… she is our longest-term employee here. Only Tony's been here longer than Margarita. But Margarita, where she's from in Mexico, has made pulque before and so she gives me all the real deal, right. So, I read about it, and I wrote about it and I was like, wait a minute, no that's not right. Because what you see online is not exactly true. they say oh we cut it and then we leave it for months and then we come… no, no. They cut it, they fold the leaf over, they come for the first couple days, they take all the aguamiel out and they throw it out because it's got bitterness to it. And then when they taste it and it's no longer bitter then they start to collect the aguamiel to go back home with them. And so, the folks that cut pinas are called jimadors and the folks who are the pulque collectors, they collect it. They put it in wood barrels like you'd see whiskey barrels. So, you fill those up. You have to take them back on your donkey really, really slowly because the more you shake the pulque, the aguamiel, it can spoil very, very quickly and very easily. So, they try to take it back gently. You get it there, you put it into big pots, you let it set for one week and you have what's called the Madre pulque, you have the mother pulque. And then you take a start from the yeast that's in your mother pulque and put it in the other barrels and it'll ferment very quickly within a week you'll have pulque. Pulque cannot be properly stored or transported so unless you're at a pulqueriea and one of the Mexican states where they traditionally use pulque, you won't find pulque. It can't be transported because when it shakes, it ruins the quality of the pulque and destroys it. So, it's a very localized thing.

So, check it out we've got the… we've got the core cut. We've got a little you got… you guys don't be shy, come on up. And he even scored the leaf to cover it. And you'd want to cover it just to keep bugs and stuff out of the little basin where the pulque is. How do you extract the pulque? Another natural product. Traditionally they'd use large and bigger than this and longer than this gourd but gourds of this shape. and to extract the pulque, you have a hole in the bottom of the gourd, a hole in the top of the gourd, and a cork that goes in the bottom. And you put the gourd into the pulque, you suction it up, you stop up the top end, stop up the bottom end, put your cork in it, walk over to your barrel and unload the gourd. And that's something yeah oh my gosh you get up to… so one agave you can get up to two liters of aguamiel a day. So, if you consider that these things can produce good usable aguamiel for more than a month you can get a couple of hundred liters of pulque from a single agave plant. So, a little better than corn mash.

Question: If they cut the top of it off, that thing will come back again?

Answer: No. Like this, it's done. It's done.

Question: Like this one right here, can you keep working on it until next year?

Answer: Well, no. When you cut it out it's going to… it's a blooming plant that you're cutting. And so, it's going to die after it blooms anyway. So, either way, the plant is dead but in this one you're only getting the water, one shot. And in this one you're getting a lot more liquor for your money, right. So really fascinating and to me just fascinating how many things and how much connection there is to agave. Not just… it was clothing, it was housing, it was food, it was enjoyment, right. And pulque was originally considered only usable by the highest class, nobility, and high-class people in Mesoamerica. It wasn't something that the, you know, the standard people like me would have had access to. But after the Spanish colonization, pulque became everybody's beverage. And then when the European beer was introduced in Mexico pulque went from being 100% of the alcohol that was consumed in Mexico to being only 10% today and European beer is number one. A lot more effective doing this.

Agave - The Plant of Life

And the very last use of agave I'll share with you is from a project that I was involved with down in Ecuador. In Ecuador, anybody been to Ecuador? No? Okay well it's not the place a lot of people go but in Ecuador you have… the Andes mountains rise from the Pacific side, there's a big valley that's really high up, 10,000 or so feet. And then there's another peak on the Eastern side of the Andes and it drops down into Amazon. So, everybody in Ecuador lives in the valley. And the Central Valley is where all the people have traditionally lived. And the deforestation that's happened in those valleys because the rain rises up the Pacific and rains really hundreds of inches on the Mendo side and when you get to Otavalo’s side it's dry. And so there are valleys in the northern part of Ecuador where all the trees were taken out, utilized for charcoal and for timber, and when the trees leave there's nothing to put moisture into the atmosphere to generate convective storms. And so, in some of these valleys it doesn't rain anymore. Well at a place in northern Ecuador one of the gentlemen who owned a very large hacienda estate in northern Ecuador decided he was going to terraform. And he was going to transform this valley that we knew was full of what's called Juglans regia, the black walnut from the Andes, was the former timber tree. And he had a dream that someday again there'd be enough rain to grow the walnut trees for timber. And so, he started by making an agave plantation and on the agave plantation he harvested agave nectar. And made pulque and distilled the pulque into mezcal and made all these products and started to sell them. and all the people associated with that farmstead that had been living and working really as slaves at one time and then as a sort of like sharecroppers at another, and now were just the normal people in the valley, all participated as part of the project. And by God they grew agave and it started to rain. And then when it rained just a little bit, they started to plant citrus. And they started to plant other things that would then create more moisture in the atmosphere, and it started to rain more, and it started to rain more. And after only about 17 years, they planted the very first walnut trees and there was enough rain for them to grow. So, not only is it the the plant of life for people, but you can even terraform with it. Pretty wild huh? Thank you guys so much for visiting us. If you have any questions, I'm happy to answer anything you might want to know. I'm not the world's agave expert I just seem to have always lived next to and with it in my travels.


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