Agave (Agave americana, Agave parryi, century plant)

Forget a few prickles from a prickly pear or even the jumping cholla. The giant agave is a plant that can do some serious damage to anyone who gets in its way. The long, needle-sharp points at the ends of its leaves (they show up black on the photo above) can literally pierce to the bone and leave you with blood pouring down your leg or arm. The leaves of a large specimen can be as long as 40 inches, fringed along the sides with sharp teeth and topped off with that penetrating spine.

Agave plants in bloomSupposedly the alternate name, "century plant," arose from the idea that each plant blooms only once a century and then dies. That's a considerable exaggeration, though no one seems to have determined exactly how old they are when they bloom, if indeed there is any consistent pattern. The plants in our yard shown on the Agave Blooms page were about 12 years old when they bloomed, but this is deceptive since they grew not from seed but from suckers as many agaves do. Though the original plant does seem to die after blooming, there are generally some younger shoots growing from the same root clump that will take its place. Agaves are easy to propagate from these shoots and can be very attractive in a desert landscape scheme. However, be sure you choose wisely the spot where you plant them, because they are extremely hard to dig up when once they become established.

"Bold Emory" came across the plant October 18, 1846 near Santa Rita, N.M. and describes it as follows:

This afternoon I found the famous mescal, (an agave) about three feet in diameter, broad leaves and teeth like a shark; the leaves arranged in concentric circles, and terminating in the middle of the plant in a perfect cone. Of this the Apaches made molasses, and cook it with horse meat.

[What the Apaches cooked was the giant bulbous stem at the core of the leaves; the leaves themselves are tough and stringy, offering little nourishment, though desert cottontails will nibble on them in a particularly hard winter.]

John Russell Bartlett, traveling through Sonora in June 1851, described the following uses of the plant by Mexicans and Indians

Mescal, or aguardiente, is a spirituous liquor of great strength, much more so than our strongest whiskey. It is obtained from the bulb or root of the maguay or agave mexicana, and is the common alcoholic drink throughout the country. The process of making this liquor is as follows: A hole is first dug some ten or twelve feet in diameter, and about three deep, and is lined with stones. Upon this a fire is built and is kept up until the stones are thoroughly heated. A layer of moist grass is then thrown upon the stones, and on this are piled the bulbs of the maguay, which vary in size, from one's head to a half bushel measure, resembling large onions. These are again covered with a thicker layer of grass; and the whole is allowed to remain until they are thoroughly baked. They are then removed to large leathern bags, and water is poured on them to produce fermentation. At the end of a week the bags are emptied of the maguay and its liquor, which, after undergoing the process of distillation, is ready for use.

But the mescal is the least important of the uses to which the maguay is applied. When its stem is tapped there flows from it a juice which, on being fermented, produces the pulque, a favorite beverage in Central and Lower Mexico, though little known in the Northern States. From the fibers of its massive leaves, which grow to five or six feet in length, and two inches in thickness, is spun a stout thread, which is again doubled, and twisted into ropes. Next, a heavy bagging is made of it, similar to that in which our coffee comes to market. Again, the more delicate leaves are rolled up into balls, and these, on being pounded, form a lather which answers the purpose of soap. It is likewise used to a great extent as a thatch. The younger leaves are eagerly eaten by cattle; and it is said that the minute particles of silica in its stem render it, when cut longitudinally into strips, an excellent substitute for a razor strop. But there is yet another use to which it is applied, viz., as an article of food. For this purpose the bulbs or roots are baked in the ashes, or in the same manner as for making aguardiente, and the outer skin stripped off. It is then sweet, and rather pleasant to the taste, and is extensively used by the Indians on the Gila as well as by the Mexicans on the Rio Grande, who are too lazy to cultivate the soil and raise corn. The engineers attached to the Commission told me that the entire Mexican population at Presidio del Norte, consisting of a thousand souls, had no other food for more than six months. I afterwards saw the agave used as food by the Apaches, the Pimos, the Coco Maricopas, and the Diegenos, on the shores of the Pacific.

John Russell Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, June, 1851, Fronteras, Sonora

Agave is also used to make tequila.

See also: An 1885 trip to the Chiricahua mountains

Recommended reading:

Epple, Anne Orth. A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona . Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1995.