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.
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.
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The information on the agave comes from Bill Law's book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History.