Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Short History of the Agave - for Bom

Agave tequilana
The agave has been around for 60 millions years. The native range of these sun loving plants is in Southern Mexico and Northern South America. They are used to hot deserts and the arid conditions of sun drenched mountain slopes. Agaves have been consumed in one way or another for nine thousand years and continue to be used primarily for commercial purposes.
Agaves have been used as medicinal plants for the relief of inflammation, however, some such as A. bovicornuta cause dermatitis and some other species are so toxic that they have been used to poison the tips of arrows.

One tribe of New Mexican Apache Indians had many uses for the agave. They ate the mescal agave and turned its fibres into rope, cords, sandals and baskets. It was used as fuel and also as 'quids' in firearms.It could also be used to sew with: when the needle-sharp tip of the agave is snapped off it comes away with a string of vascular tissue that serves as thread.

The fibres are durable and sunlight resistant and those from A. sisalana are made into handwoven sisal rugs and more recently into cords and ropes that will hold up your clematis, tie that mattress tightly onto the roof of your car, or hold cargo in its place on transport ships. In the 1400's when Mexico was at the height of its power, the fibres of A. pacifica were used in clothing. Today sisal is grown in Kenya, Tanzania and Brazil and plays a significant economic role for these countries.

A century later when the Aztec civilization was in decline they traded their knowledge of the agave with the Spanish who gave them the technology of the still. The process of distilling grains into liquor was yet unknown to the Mexicans at this time. Naturally they looked to the agave as a possibility and soon were distilling a variety of intoxicating spirits. Pulque is made by fermenting the 'honey water' that is collected in the hollowed-out stems of the agave. Mescal is made from mashed mescal heads, or cabeza, made from the maguey plant (a form of agave, Agave americana). Mescal is double distilled and is aged in the bottle for four years. By the 1620's the Mexicans found if they cooked the fleshy leaf base of A. tequilana they could convert the natural starches into sugars. When pulped and fermented, the sugars became the drink the most famous for Mexico, the tequila.


This post is entered into Bom's birthday prize give away. Happy Birthday Bom.
The information on the agave comes from Bill Law's book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History.


  1. This was a nice post for Bom, so much information on a pretty remarkable plant. I had no idea all the uses or the history.

  2. That was a great tribute to Bom's birthday Patty! There are several yuccas in my yard that have been here since we bought the lot...I've tried digging them up but they are tenacious and keep coming back from the root. You know being here near the border, we drink our fair share of tequila!! Such a useful plant!

  3. GW, Cat: I know that Bom enjoys the history of plants as much as I do, so I thought he might like this.

  4. This is one very informative post. You bet I love history of plants. I have a big potted Agave tequiliana with three babies. I just love its blue coloration. In my younger years, I used to drink a lot of tequila. Thanks for this post.

  5. Patty, I can see why this plant made the list of the fifty plants that changed the world! What isn't Agave used for! I thought it was particularly interesting, that like digitalis, it is used for both medicinal purposes and as well as a poison.

  6. Hi i was able to visit only now when Bom's winners are up. We lost but we are happy about it, aren't we? We have lots of Agave too here in the country and use the fibers as you said. Since i am not that familiar with history in million years, i wonder which is older, the cycas or the agave? hehe. I posted cycas earlier which i said are foods of the dinosaurs.

  7. @ Patty and Andrea: I think it was a completely wise move on my part to equate one post with one entry. All the entered posts were so very good that I would have been hard pressed to choose a winner based on the merit of content. ;-P

  8. Patty, The history of the agave is fascinating, and i love my margarita! Carolyn