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Agave (US: //, UK: //, Anglo-Hispanic: //) is a genus of monocots. The plants are perennial, but each rosette flowers once and then dies (see semelparity). Some species are known by the name century plant.
In the APG III system, the genus is placed in the subfamily Agavoideae of the broadly circumscribed family Asparagaceae. Some authors prefer to place it in the segregate family Agavaceae. Traditionally, it was circumscribed to be composed of about 166 species, but it is now usually understood to have about 208 species.
Chiefly Mexican, agaves are also native to the southern and western United States and central and tropical South America. They are succulents with a large rosette of thick, fleshy leaves, each ending generally in a sharp point and with a spiny margin; the stout stem is usually short, the leaves apparently springing from the root. Along with plants from the related genus Yucca, various Agave species are popular ornamental plants.
Each rosette is monocarpic and grows slowly to flower only once. During flowering, a tall stem or "mast" ("quiote" in Mexico) grows from the center of the leaf rosette and bears a large number of short, tubular flowers. After development of fruit, the original plant dies, but suckers are frequently produced from the base of the stem, which become new plants.
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The agave root system, consisting of a network of shallow rhizomes, is designed to help the agave efficiently capture moisture from rain, condensation and dew. In addition to growing from seeds, most agaves produce 'pups' – young plants from runners. Agave vilmoriniana (the octopus agave) produces hundreds of pups on its bloom stalk. Agave leaves store the plant’s water and are crucial to its continued existence. The coated leaf surface prevents evaporation. The leaves also have sharp, spiked edges. The spikes discourage predators from making eating the plant or using it as a source of water and are so tough that ancient peoples used them for sewing needles. The sap is acidic. Agaves bloom at a height up to 30 ft (9 m) so that they are far out of reach to animals that might attack them. Smaller species, such as Agave lechuguilla, have smaller bloom stalks.
In the Cronquist system and others, Agave was placed in the family Liliaceae, but phylogenetic analyses of DNA sequences later showed it did not belong there. In the APG II system, Agave was placed in the family Agavaceae. When this system was superseded by the APG III system in 2009, the Agavaceae were subsumed into the expanded family Asparagaceae, and Agave was treated as one of 18 genera in the subfamily Agavoideae.
Agave had long been treated as a genus of about 166 species, but this concept of Agave is now known to be paraphyletic over the genera Manfreda, Polianthes, and Prochnyanthes. These genera are now combined with Agave as Agave sensu lato, which contains about 208 species. In some of the older classifications, Agave was divided into two subgenera, Agave and Littaea, based on the form of the inflorescence. These two subgenera are probably not monophyletic.
Agaves have long presented special difficulties for taxonomy; variations within a species may be considerable, and a number of named species are of unknown origin and may just be variants of original wild species.
Spanish and Portuguese explorers probably brought agave plants back to Europe, but the plants became popular in Europe during the 19th century, when many types were imported by collectors. Some have been continuously propagated by offset since then, and do not consistently resemble any species known in the wild, although this may simply be due to the differences in growing conditions in Europe.
Commonly grown species
The most commonly grown species include Agave americana, Agave angustifolia, Agave tequilana, Agave attenuata, Agave parviflora, Agave murpheyi, Agave vilmoriniana, Agave palmeri, Agave parryi and Agave victoriae-reginae.
One of the most familiar species is Agave americana, a native of tropical America. Common names include century plant, maguey (in Mexico), or American aloe (it is not, however, closely related to the genus Aloe). The name "century plant" refers to the long time the plant takes to flower. The number of years before flowering occurs depends on the vigor of the individual plant, the richness of the soil, and the climate; during these years the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment required for the effort of flowering.
Agave americana, century plant, was introduced into Europe about the middle of the 16th century, and is now widely cultivated as an ornamental; in the variegated forms, the leaf has a white or yellow marginal or central stripe. As the leaves unfold from the center of the rosette, the impression of the marginal spines is conspicuous on the still erect younger leaves. The plants require protection from frost. They mature very slowly and die after flowering, but are easily propagated by the offsets from the base of the stem.
Blue A. americana occurs in abundance in the Karoo, and arid highland regions of South Africa. Introduced by the British settlers in 1820, the plant was originally cultivated and used as emergency feed for livestock. Today it is used mainly for the production of syrup and sugar.
A. attenuata is a native of central Mexico and is uncommon in its natural habitat. Unlike most species of agave, A. attenuata has a curved flower spike from which it derives one of its numerous common names - the foxtail agave. A. attenuata is also commonly grown as a garden plant. Unlike many agaves, A. attenuata has no teeth or terminal spines, making it an ideal plant for areas adjacent to footpaths. Like all agaves, A. attenuata is a succulent and requires little water or maintenance once established.
Agave azul (blue agave) is used in the production of tequila.
But the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the table-land. As we have already noticed its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which the natives, to this day, are extremely fond; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!
There are four major parts of the agave that are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap (in Spanish: aguamiel, meaning "honey water").
Each agave plant will produce several pounds of edible flowers during its final season. The stalks, which are ready during the summer, before the blossom, weigh several pounds each. Roasted, they are sweet and can be chewed to extract the aguamiel, like sugarcane. When dried out, the stalks can be used to make didgeridoos. The leaves may be collected in winter and spring, when the plants are rich in sap, for eating. The leaves of several species also yield fiber: for instance, Agave rigida var. sisalana, sisal hemp, Agave decipiens, false sisal hemp. Agave americana is the source of pita fiber, and is used as a fiber plant in Mexico, the West Indies and southern Europe.
During the development of the inflorescence, sap rushes to the base of the young flower stalk. Agave nectar (also called agave syrup), a sweetener derived from the sap, is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, and can be added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. The sap of A. americana and other species is used in Mexico and Mesoamerica to produce pulque, an alcoholic beverage. The flower shoot is cut out and the sap collected and subsequently fermented. By distillation, a spirit called mezcal is prepared; one of the best-known forms of mezcal is tequila. In 2001, the Mexican Government and European Union agreed upon the classification of tequila and its categories. All 100% blue agave tequila must be made from the Weber blue agave plant, to rigorous specifications and only in certain Mexican states.
When dried and cut in slices, the flowering stem forms natural razor strops, and the expressed juice of the leaves will lather in water like soap. The natives of Mexico used the agave to make pens, nails, and needles, as well as string to sew and make weavings. Leaf tea or tincture taken orally is used to treat constipation and excess gas. It is also used as a diuretic. Root tea or tincture is taken orally to treat arthritic joints. Several agave species are also considered to have potential as effective bioenergy crops. Agave's ability to grow in naturally water-limited environments could help to reduce the food vs fuel trade-off.
The agave, especially Agave murpheyi, was a major food source for the prehistoric indigenous people of the Southwestern United States. The Hohokam of southern Arizona cultivated large areas of agave.
The Navajo similarly found many uses for the agave plant. A beverage is squeezed from the baked fibers, and the heads can be baked or boiled, pounded into flat sheets, sun dried, and stored for future use. The baked, dried heads are also boiled and made into an edible paste, eaten whole, or made into soup. The leaves are eaten boiled, and the young, tender flowering stalks and shoots are roasted and eaten as well. The fibers are used to make rope, the leaves are used to line baking pits, and the sharp pointed leaf tips are used to make basketry awls.
Images of species and cultivars
Agave americana var. americana
Agave americana 'Marginata'
Agave americana cv. 'Mediopicta Alba'
Agave angustifolia 'Marginata'
Agave bracteosa (spider agave)
Agave salmiana var. ferox
Agave sisalana (sisal)
Agave tequilana (tequila agave)
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- Howard Scott Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America (University of Arizona Press, 1982), the standard work, with accounts of 136 species.
- Die Agaven.
- IPNI : The International Plant Name Index.
- Native Plant Information Network More information on species in the Agave genus.
- Xeric World An online community dedicated to the study of Xeric plant species with a focus on the family Agavaceae.
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