Amazing Agave, Marvelous Maguey...Century Plants Sport Soaring Blooms

Thrusting its bloom spike some 30 feet into the South Texas sky, the century plant will bloom only once and then die. Worshiped by the ancient Aztecs and cultivated by conquering Spaniards the century plant or maguey as it is known in Mexico is native to deep South Texas. It was an important plant to the indigenous people and continues to be a valuable source of nutrition for native wildlife.

"We are probably the northern range," said naturalist Benito Trevino from Rio Grande City. "Here on our ranch we have one place that has 15 to 25 in one area." It is peak blooming time for the impressive member of the agave family, and two are flowering on Trevino's Las Lomitas Ranch in the arid western region of Starr County. "I have a couple that are so tall they are past the telephone wires."

"I was told by an archaeologist that the area where the agaves are concentrated is actually an old Indian site," Trevino said. "When they had a place where they camped for extended periods they would plant agave because it was so important to them. He told me that if you find agave in fairly large numbers and shells from the coast and broken rocks indicating activity it is more than likely that is an Indian site. In the winter when they had a lot of trouble finding food, they would travel to the coast and trade arrowheads, hides and other things for food and shells, and then bring the shells back for use as decorations."

The maguey or century plant is not a cactus but a member of the agave family which includes more than 120 species. The variety found in the wilds of southernmost Texas is often agave "scabra." The leaves are gray to slightly blue and have thick, rough serrated edges tipped with razor sharp thorns. The mature plant is large, chest high or more with a circumference exceeding its height.

The century plant gets its name from the fact that it takes years to bloom, but considerably less than one hundred. The plant lives an average of 25 years and usually blooms at some unpredictable time between 10 and 35 years. The process triggering the agave's fatal bloom remains a mystery, but the nectar rich, high rise flowers attract myriad birds, insects and bats.

"The plant only blooms one time and then it dies," Trevino said. "The stalk can grow as fast as 12 to 16 inches a day. "When I was at the University of Texas the botany professor had several growing outside the botany building. When one started to bloom he had a fiberglass pole that was marked in inches, and we were able to monitor the growth rate. I remember one growing to 22 feet." There are reports of bloom stalks reaching 40 feet and 30 is not uncommon for South Texas.

However, even though the mature agave dies after blooming it usually produces pups or young plants at its base. "Even if it doesn't produce pups when the plant dies the roots usually sprout out new ones," Trevino said.

The dark green bloom spike is so large, some four inches in diameter, and grows so fast that it saps all the resources of the plant which dies leaving a tall wooden stalk. "When that stalk is starting to come out it emits a tremendous amount of energy, a lot of food, a lot of fiber, a lot of material going into making the stalk."

"The indigenous people when they saw the stalk starting to emerge they would cut it and they would make an impression right in the middle of the plant like a little bowl. All the material that would go toward the stalk, since the stalk was not there, would accumulate, and they would drink it."

The sweet liquid was called "aguamiel" or honey water. "When they would drink it as a juice it was probably more nutritious than orange juice, because it contained a lot of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Whatever was left over they would collect and let it ferment, and that is how they made "pulque." The Spaniards taught the indigenous people how to distill and then "mezcal" and tequila were made." Today, tequila is made primarily from a different species, agave tequilana also called blue agave.

The maguey was also used as a source of fiber for weaving and making small ropes, mats, sandals and bowstrings. The leaves yield a fiber referred to as "pita" which was later used for intricate leather embroidery by Spanish artisans. The technique known as "piteado" was often woven into expensive saddles for an impressive finished effect.

"They would mash it and make paper for the codices," Trevino explained. The Aztec codices are a series of pictographs depicting their history and were also drawn on fig bark and deer skin.

The thick leaves were used in cooking. "They would split the leaves in half, you know kind of like a tamal," Trevino said. "They put meat in between and then tied it with the strings from the same plant. Then they would put it in the fire under a bed of coals. Apparently, it flavored and tenderized the meat."

The massive clusters of blooms reaching toward the sun start out as tight green buds and then open into rich golden-yellow flowers. The nectar rich flowers open slowly in sequence from roughly two thirds up the stalk to the top which blooms in a final burst of beauty. The uppermost blooms are not quite as large as those below.

Birds, bats and insects are attracted to the sweet flowers. Golden-fronted woodpeckers, hooded orioles and buff-bellied hummingbirds are frequent visitors.

While many creatures visit the flowers during the day, it is a nighttime visitor that is perhaps the most vital. The agave's primary pollinator is the Mexican long-nosed bat, the only nectar feeding bat in the United States. Each summer, the bats frequent areas in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. where agaves bloom. Without the century plants the bats might not survive and without the bats pollinating services the plants might disappear.

For more than 2,000 years the libation called "pulque" has been fermented from the nectar of the maguey plant in the deserts of central Mexico. This traditional native beverage of Mesoamerica was consumed by Aztec warriors and kings who swore by its healthful attributes and alleged aphrodisiac qualities. Pulque is depicted in Native American stone carvings from as early as 200 AD.

According to pre-Columbian legend, during the reign of Tecpancaltzin, a Toltec noble name Papantzin discovered the secret of extracting aguamiel from the maguey plant. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the consumption of pulque was an important part of Aztec religious ceremonies.

The magnificent agave with its spectacular bloom, fascinating history and importance to wildlife is one of the most remarkable native plants in South Texas. If you find yourself gazing up at a century plant bestow the agave an extra measure of admiration as the fatal flowering will be its last.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore