Lessons From The Agave

Last July, an agave plant housed at the University of Michigan since 1934 bloomed for the first time. It started shooting sprouts at a rate of about six centimeters a day, eventually exceeding the eight-meter high greenhouse, requiring attendants to open a panel in the roof. But while the top of the plant bloomed with small, yellow, matchstick-like stamens, the base was already in decay; the agave flowers only once in its lifetime then quietly dies. A horticulturist on site observed in amazement that the aging plant’s lower leaves had developed wrinkles.

Nicknamed the Century Plant, the agave is renowned for its long lifespan and has a few lessons to teach us – the most obvious are perhaps endurance and adaptability. Native to Mexico, South America and the Southern and Western United States, agave also flourished in Europe after Spanish and Portuguese explorers returned home with cuttings. It is widely believed that the agave’s usage as nourishment began some eight thousand years ago in Jalisco, Mexico, which is home to approximately 80% of the world’s blue agave plants. In the subsequent centuries, the diverse succulent has become a household name as a sugar alternative and the source of tequila and mescal; it’s at the root of your low glycemic index doughnut and the frozen margarita you washed it down with. But long before this, populations around the world used the plant for purposes both medicinal and practical.

Agave americana // Agave potatorum
Agave americana // Agave potatorum

The Valle del Mezquital in central Mexico is home to about four hundred people, outnumbered by the countless agave plants, or maguey, which stud the arid land. The hardy maguey is so full of potential that it has helped to sustain the locals in various ways for centuries, earning the pet name El Arbol de las Maravillas, or The Tree of Wonders. The maguey was a key commodity for the patient community, who would wait twelve years for the plant to mature enough for its sap to be harvested and fermented into pulque, a wildly popular milk- colored alcohol. When a particular variety is not suitable for harvesting agua miel, a fermented honey-water made from the stem’s juice, its fibers are instead extracted to make yarn. The most common use of this ixtle is to make rope and ayates – large fabric squares that are often given to brides.

“Here, it seems, is another lesson we can learn from the agave: integrity.”

Ixtle, like many other aspects of weddings, can be challenging to prepare; the raw plant material must first be pounded, then buried under piles of stones, washed in the river and worked over with cornstarch and lime juice. Here, it seems, is another lesson we can learn from the agave: integrity. It takes physical and psychological muscle to reveal the secrets and possibilities of this plant. Its rosette formation of thick, spiny leaves protect the central stem that is the source of nectar. Even its chemical composition requires manipulation to render the juice useful; when left untreated, the juice is as soapy as Dr. Bronner’s skin care, except highly irritating to the skin, not to mention the stomach.

Agave lechuguilla // Agave havardiana
Agave lechuguilla // Agave havardiana

Another population who learned to work with the agave is Native Americans. Through the use of an age-old earth oven that was sometimes built up to four meters wide to house the enormous agave plants, they discovered that heat and steam made the nectar edible. The Mescalero Apache tribe in particular found a way to turn almost every part of the plant into nutrient-rich food. They baked and stored the stems, distilled the pulp to make mescal and cooked and ate the flower stalks, which were a source of iron, magnesium and calcium. Once the food options were exhausted, the agave fibers were used for purposes as diverse as hunting traps, building materials and paper.

Agave victoriae-reginae // Agave difformis
Agave victoriae-reginae // Agave difformis

Researchers say that any child born today has a high chance of living beyond 100. With this in mind, these kids might do well to remember the lessons of the eight-meter tall, eighty year-old agave that outgrew its greenhouse: be willing to put in the work, don’t give away all your secrets at once, and sometimes one beautiful display of achievement takes a whole life’s work, but it’s certainly worth waiting for.

Written by Amelia Stein
Photographed by Stephen Wilde
Illustrated by Sung Lee

The Journal is published bi-annually and complimentary copies are available at Herschel Supply stockists worldwide. Enjoy the digital edition of Issue 4 (Spring/Summer 2015) in its entirety by visiting the archive.

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