I very much doubt if Carl Linnaeus ever planted an agave in his life. He was a Swedish taxonomist who in 1753 chose the name for this genus from a Greek word meaning admirable or noble. If he had planted one, the Greek word for pain or some choice obscenity would have come to mind instead.
It is hard to plant an agave without getting jabbed once or twice by a terminal spine. This is the rigid, ridiculously sharp spine found at the leaf tips of most agaves. On some species, such as Agave salmiana, it is a long and gracefully recurved, eye-gouging thing of beauty. Some species also have a steroid compound on the surface of the spine that enhances the stabbing pain. Agaves are like that.
The late Howard Scott Gentry, taxonomic wizard of this genus, referred to the general range where agaves can be found as Agaveland, as if it were some kind of mythical kingdom. Armed with sharp teeth, the spiraling rosettes do seem to occupy their rocky posts like guardians of a distant realm. There are 200-250 species of agaves occupying the drier sites of virtually every kind of habitat, from sea level to over 8,000 feet, throughout much of the arid Western U.S., Mexico, and Central America, as well as the West Indies.
The teeth and spines are supposedly there to protect the plant’s short stem and soft flower stalk from attack by predators. But cattle will eat agaves when really hungry. Javelina will eat them any time they please. And the most serious pests of all are rabbits, blithely eating around the formidable teeth and spines, proving once again that there is no such thing as a perfect weapon.
Some of the agaves resort to chemical defenses. Agave lechuguilla, for example, contains a substance toxic enough to kill goats. It has been suggested that some of these smaller agaves might be planted to protect areas subject to overgrazing. The goat people might get upset about this.
Agave leaves are usually glabrous, which means without hairs, though it sounds as if it should mean something else. As leaves go, they are remarkably long-lived, persisting for as long as 15 years or the entire life of the plant unless hacked off by some idiot who thinks agaves should look like pineapples.
Like many late blooming humans, most agaves are monocarpic, flowering but once in a lifetime. They may take anywhere from eight to 20 years to flower. The flower stalks in the larger species may reach up to 40 feet in height. These monumental projections of plant matter undoubtedly helped to inspire the word “admirable.” Gentry compares this rapid growth to “a boiler building up a head of steam.” To erect this mighty structure the agave must use up so much of its stored carbohydrate reserves that the leaves are drained and, in most species, the whole plant must die.
In agave flowers, the petals and sepals are hard to tell apart, so scientists just say the hell with it and call them all “tepals,” which does have a cute ring to it.
As a landscape plant, the agave is hard to beat. Not only is it drought tolerant, but its spiral form tends to collect and direct water down to the roots — the plant almost irrigates itself.
Few plants have been as intimately involved in human culture. Their fiber and fleshy hearts have been used for everything from food, clothing and shelter to fish stringers, paint brushes and musical instruments. Various tribes in Mexico have cultivated agaves for centuries. The thick short stem known as a “cabeza” is a rich source of carbohydrates that provided Native Americans with the fermented beverage known as pulque. Gentry points to the considerable effect this drink had on “the esoteric and exotic development of Mesoamerican culture.” That’s one way of putting it.
Those coming later to American shores also found agaves appealing for the mescal and tequila that they could provide. A single Agave tequilana, upon maturity, can produce a cabeza weighing up to 100 pounds, which when distilled is enough to make about 5 liters of tequila. Talk about admirable qualities.
I think of all these things as I plant yet another agave. True to form, one of its stout spines just narrowly misses my eye, and once again I am quietly grateful for my vision and for living in Agaveland.
Column ©Gene Twaronite 2015
Gene’s latest book is “The Absurd Naturalist. Irreverent Musings on Nature,” available from Amazon or your local bookstore. Follow Gene’s writing at his blog, TheTwaroniteZone.Com. “The Absurd Naturalist” logo by Jonathan Devine.