Teaching Tuesdays - The Agave Plant

Agave, stemming from the Greek word agauos, meaning of kings and heros, illustrious, noble. This plant was likely taken back to Europe by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, but the plants became popular [in Europe] during the 19th century, when many types were imported by collectors. Some have been continuously propagated by offset since that time, and do not even resemble any species known in the wild.  

There are well over 300 species of Agave that have been described, but only about 200 that are currently recognised. It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. In fact, they are not related to the cacti, nor are they closely related to the Aloe plant, whose leaves are similar in appearance. Although it is important to know how to handle this plant, and which species is which since the  juice from many species can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will create reddening and blistering of the skin that lasts from one to two weeks, and episodes of itching, even though there is not a visible rash, may reoccur up to one year after contact!  The irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. While dried parts of the plant can be handled with the bare hands,  without any effects, if the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf, (from a vigorously growing plant), it can cause the blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and cause bruising in an area 6–7 cm across. This can last from two to three weeks, so you beter exercise caution and know which plant you are messing with!  

The Agave plants are perennial, and most flower only once, then die, which is refered to as monocarpic. They grow quite slowly, eventually reaching the flowering stage. During flowering, a tall stem or "mast" grows from the center of the leaf rosette and bears a large number of shortly tubular flowers. After development of fruit, the original plant dies, but prolific vegetative growth, and offsetting at the base of the plant usually maintains a clump of plants, thus compensating for loss of the flowering rosettes. These suckers which are frequently produced from the base of the stem, grow and become new plants. However, there are a few species that remain solitary, and rely on seed production for survival of the species. There are even a few species that can even flower several times during their life.  Whatever their growth habit, this plant is commonly referred to as the century plant, since it takes so long to flower. Many species of Agave produce musky perfume scents as attractants for bats, which pollinate them, but others produce sweeter odors, ones that attract insects which pollinate and propagate them. So species is quite a distnction for this plant. 

Chiefly Mexican, agaves are also native to the southern and western United States, as well as central and tropical South America. While Agave leaf fiber was used by natives, it is still of commercial importance today, being used to make clothing and rugs. The best quality fibres, coming from the youngest of the leaves. 

Additionally, carbohydrates, which are stored in the core of several species of Agave, were fermented by the natives to make a beverage that they used in ceremonies, called pulque, which is still enoyed today. Distillation of a similar ferment, made from the developing Agave flower bud, is the basis for the modern production of Mezcal. The best known mezcal is tequila. The agave flower shoot is cut out, the sap collected, then fermented. By distillation, the mezcal is prepared. In 2001, the Mexican Government and the European Union agreed upon the classification of tequila, and its categories. All 100% blue agave tequila must be made from the Weber blue agave plant, to rigorous specifications, and only in certain Mexican states.

The Blue Agave Americana occur in abundance in the Karoo, and arid highland regions of South Africa. Introduced by the British settlers in 1820, the plant was originally cultivated and used as emergency feed for livestock, but today is used [mainly] for the production of syrup and sugar. In fact, in ancient times, the bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its leaves supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. In short, the agave was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials, all the way back to the Aztecs! 

There are four major parts of the agave that are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap which is called aguamiel, or honey water.  Each agave plant will produce several pounds of edible flowers during its final season. The stalks, which are ready before the blossom, during the summer, weigh several pounds each. When roasted, they are sweet and can be chewed to extract the aguamiel, which is like sugarcane. When dried out, the stalks can then be used to make didgeridoos. The leaves can be collected for eating in the winter and the spring, when the plants are rich in sap. As previously mentioned, some species are the source of pita fiber, and used as a fiber plant in Mexico, the West Indies and southern Europe.
Agave nectar (also called agave syrup), is a sweetener derived from the sap, and is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking. It  can also be added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. 

People have found a few other uses of the plant aside from its several uses as food. When dried and cut in slices, the flowering stem forms natural razor strops. Natives of Mexico have used the agave to make pens, nails and needles, as well as string to sew and make weavings. Leaf tea or tincture taken orally is used to treat constipation and excess gas. It is also used as a diuretic. Root tea or tincture is taken orally to treat arthritic joints. 
Also, the expressed juice of the Agave leaves will lather in water, much like soap, so historically, it has been, and still is, used as a soap substitute, as well as a natural insecticide for plants. This sap is also used medicinally to treat burns, as it has a natural antiseptic quality. And water in which the agave fibre has been soaked for 24 hours, makes a great scalp conditioner. 

This plant, depending upon the variety, is almost like a wonder plant. From it, many foods and products can, and are being made. I really suggest that you check this one out in greater depth! 

For some pictures of many varieties, check out this web site;  http://www.succulent-plant.com/families/agavaceae.html

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