Super Plant – Agave

Agaves: Historical Ethnobotanic Garden, Santo Domingo Temple - Oaxaca City, Mexico

Ethnobotany is the science of tracing the history of humanity by studying the various uses different cultures have had for plants. There are some plants that from an ethnobotanic standpoint can only be described as super. Like superheroes, they kick ass for humanity, not because they want to, but because they just happen to have that ability. These are the kinds of plants that not only have a variety of nutritional and food uses, but can also be used for spiritual reasons, medicinal purposes and even be fashioned into all sorts of useful tools, objects and materials.

Detail - Agave in Oaxaca

A few months ago I traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico, one of Mexico’s southern-most states. While there, I visited the Ethnobotanic gardens at the Temple of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City’s largest church. In the garden I saw several species of the giant succulent agave, a plant that can only be described as Mexico’s super plant.

The indigenous territory of the genus agave (agavaceae) spans from the Southern United States, down to South America. Mexico alone has approximately 200 varieties. Its use to humans is so expansive that Linneous, the inventor of Binomial Nomenclature (the system of classification of living organisms), was compelled to name the agave after the Greek word for “noble”. Agave has been cultivated for use by humans for clothing, food, ritualized drink (such as mezcal and pulque), and medicine for several thousands of years. The ancient Mesoamericans were the first to test the limits of its properties, but it is still widely used today. Agave is the primary ingredient in two of Mexico’s most popular and infamous exports, tequila and mezcal (the drink with the worm) and is as well the source of sisal (a fibre used to make rugs).

Agave rosette and serrated leaves

The agave is a succulent, with leaves that form a tight rosette spiraling from the nutrient-rich centre or heart of the plant. The leaves range in size from five to eight feet tall at maturity and have sharp, serrated edges that sometimes (depending on the species) are lined with teeth or pointed spines. At maturity (five to ten years depending on the species and growing conditions) the plant produces one flower stalk from its centre after which the plant withers and dies. It is due to this type of life cycle (one flower per plant) that the agave is considered to be an annual, even though its life span is so long.

The agave goes by several common and uncommon names. It is referred to as The Century Plant, American Aloe (it is not an aloe), green cow, and Maguey (pronounced “mah-gay”). Maguey is the word the Spanish conquerors gave to the agave and the name is still in use today in Mexico. However, it was first called metl by the Mesoamerican tribe, the Nahuatl of which the Aztecs are descended. Metl was so valuable to the Aztecs that the name of the land they settled in, Mexico, actually means “those fed from the navel of the maguey”. This plant is so sacred and revered historically by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, that through mythology, religion and lifestyle it is completely rooted within the cultural history of Mexico.

A mature flowering Agave

Thousands of years ago, the story goes, the Aztecs followed the orders of the god Huitzilopochtli and began a pilgrimage in search of the land of the metl (Mexico). They would know they were there when they saw an eagle perched on top of a cactus eating a snake. This is still the symbolism on the flag of Mexico. The name of the city they founded means “where the God of the Magueys lives”. The name of this deity is Mayahuel and she is represented as a figure nursing humanity with the juice of the maguey which is her blood. The Aztecs did drink the juice of specific varieties of the maguey both ritually and as a nutritional supplement for nursing mothers. The maguey juice was collected and fermented to form a weak alcoholic drink called “pulque”. Pulque still exists in Mexico today as the ancient predecessor to mezcal and tequila. 400 deities exist in honour of pulque, each representing a different state of intoxication. To this day it is common to spill a few drops of pulque in honour of the main god before indulging in the drink.

Drink is not the only use the Aztecs made of the agave. The tender young stem and flowers of the flower stalk were roasted and boiled as food. The spines were even used as sewing needles. Fibres extracted from the leaves were used like hemp to make bags, rope, paper and musical instruments. After the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the fibre was used to produce harnesses, bridles and saddles for horses. The flower stalks (which are often several feet tall) have been used to produce furniture, fishing poles, and fences. The sap has been used to produce soap and for medicinal purposes as a diuretic, and to cure ulcers and bruises.

Today the culture of agave has contributed to local economies in specific areas of Mexico. Mezcal for example, is primarily produced in and around the city of Oaxaca by small, family run distilleries and growers. The drink is becoming less a novelty item purchased by tourists and more a serious alcoholic beverage appreciated by aficionados. As this continues, the industry will only grow/expand. Agave is finally coming into its own globally as the super plant the Mexican people have known it to be for over 9,000 years.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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