“Agave” OR “Century Plant”: broad, succulent, sword-shaped, greenish-blue, serrated leaves arranged in a rosette pattern (circle-shape emerging from a central point). Sometimes has a long caudex (stalk) growing upright from the center.: {Agave americana}

Agave {Agave sp.} Plants Profile on USDA.gov

Identification Characteristics:

    This plant is a gigantic rosette of thick succulent leaves, up to 6′ long. A row of sturdy spines progresses up the edge of each leaf and finishes with a wicked spike at the tip of the leaf.  Blue-green in color.  Contrary to popular belief, Agave flowers much more often than every 100 years. With sufficient water the plant send up a flower shoot in 10-15 years. The flower stalk, which looks like a giant asparagus, may rise as high as 20′.

Location:

Native: Mexico

Habitat: Dry soil, hillsides, desert environment.There are several different species which grow over a large part of the desert regions of the south-western United States, chiefly in the rocky and mountainous areas at altitudes ranging from 1500-5000 feet. Agave Shawiiwas to be found, rarely, along the coast of southern San Diego county.  It is still abundant in Lower California.

   Within California, only two species of Agave (Mescal) are at all frequent in the areas where the Indians made use of them.  Both Agave deserti & Agave utahensis var. nevadensis were referred to as Mescal.

Traditional Uses:

CAUTION: The spines pose an obvious hazard. The fresh juice can cause a rash in sensitive people similar to poison oak.  Raw Agave is poisonous & even a small bite can burn the mouth.

Uses: Indians of the Southwest used a number of Agave species as food sources (A. utahensis, A. deserti and A. shawii).  The plants can be used at any time, but are reputed to be best when the flowering stalk is just beginning to rise from the center.  The Indians gathered at places where Agave grew abundantly, and camped for weeks at a time, gathering, cooking, eating & preserving the Mescal heads.

Positive-Impact Harvesting Technique

    Use a machete to remove the outer perimeter of leaves from the plant.  The ram a shovel into the base of the plant and pry it free.  This sounds quite destructive, but once the flower spike appears the plant will die shortly thereafter anyway.  A new plant will arise from underground portions of the old one.

    The central bud portion is what you want. Trim back all the leaves and wrap the “bud” in aluminum foil and place in a drip pan. Bake at 350 for 10 hours. After cooking, peel off the leaves and scrape off the pulp much like you would eat an artichoke, working towards the center.  If the heart is cooked long enough, it should be a soft mushy golden brown.

Other: The Agave was a staple for many Indian tribes.  The Mescalero Indians were so named by the Spanish due to their heavy use of this plant– the Spanish name for Agave is mescal.  The Indians roasted the plants in large communal pits 10-12 feet in diameter and 2-3 feet deep. Great care was taken in selecting the fuel so that none would give the finished product a bitter taste. When the remains of the fire were raked out, a layer orcovering a Agave leaves or grass was placed over the ashes & the Mescal heads were laid in the “oven” in layers, finally covered with another layer of leaves or grass, banked over with sand or earth, and left to bake until the following day. A large quantity of the the nutritious, sweet mass was eaten right away, but much was also worked into cakes, dried & thoroughly re-dried for winter storage & bartering with neighboring tribes.

    The young flower stems and unopened flower buds were cut into short lengths & roasted with the Mescal heads.  The golden flowers were boiled, dried, and preserved for winter use. They would keep for years & were still sweet when recooked.

    A fine twine can be stripped from the leaves of the plant.  If you carefully break off a spine, the attached fibers can e pulled from the plant and you have a ready made needle and thread.  Some species of Agave have sharply curved spines on the lea margin. I have twisted these off and with the threads that remain attached you have a fishing hook with a ready-made leader.

    The fiber was extracted from the dry leaves by beating, and from the fresh leaves by soaking and rotting off the pulp & outer skin, in much the same manner as the Yucca fibers were handled.  Fibers from the Mescal heads were often tied into bunches which served as hairbrush & comb.  The dead leaves contained the stoutest fibers. Bow-strings made from it last for years. Cordage was also used for carrying nets & baby hammocks.

    The women of several southern tribes also used the charcoal from burned Agave for tattooing by prickin in the bluish-black patterns with a thorn of cactus, Opuntia.

     A large species of Mexican Agave is the source of tequila.  The base of the plant is tapped fro the sap which is fermented and then distilled.

    The Aztecs would peel the surface layer off of Agave leaves and use them for paper.  The early Spanish conquerors were so impressed with this that they used this paper to write their reports which were sent home to Spain.

    If you wish to make Agave paper, you will find it necessary to keep the pages sandwiched between something heavy so they will not curl up.  Also, you must rub some glycerin into the parchment immediately after peeling to keep it from becoming too brittle.

Bibliography: Edible & Poisonous Plants of Northern California, by James WiltensEarly Uses of California Plants, by Edward Ballshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave_americana

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