Awesome Awful Agave americana

Agave fibers were once used to make many useful items

The agave is one of the southwest’s most structurally spectacular accent plants. Two Century plants (Agave americana) grow in our yard and they are intimidating to work around. These members of the succulent family require very little water and very little maintenance. Their offshoots or pups have to be dug out periodically unless you want a litter. Saving a pup here and there can be forward thinking, as once the plant blooms at around eight or ten years, it will die. Each bladelike leaf is serrated and will viciously rake the bare skin of the unwary. Growing from the base in a rosette pattern, the leaves are tipped with triangular shaped spikes. Chasing a tennis ball, our silly dog Koloa ended up with one of those needles embedded in her eye. Ouch.
Recently a yard project required we cut a few of the leaves off our agave. Before disposing of them, I decided to dissect. Beneath the green skin is a fleshy moist interior threaded with cream colored strands. These fibers are strong as heck and could easily double as dental floss.
Feeling my inner ancient ancestor, I scraped away the pulp, pulling free the long strands. In a bucket of water the pulp fermented and dissolved away from the strands over a couple of days. Eventually I was able to comb out a long hank of fibers. Rubbing them with beeswax ensured pliability. Although they are beautiful, like a horse’s tail, I’ve been unable to produce anything useful from them.
Several sites on the Internet offer information on how native peoples used agave plants. In addition to harvesting wild agave, the Hohokam cultivated large fields of the succulents and made use of every part of them. Women spun the fibers into textiles and the strong threads were used to make everything from bowstrings and hunting snares to cradles, shoes and baskets. The leaves, roots, seeds, cores and blooms of the agave were eaten, mostly roasted. The pulp and roots were used medicinally for arthritis, digestive issues and as a disinfectant
Today the heart or pina of an agave plant is cooked and fermented to make mescal or tequila depending on the type of agave and the region in which it was grown. In areas where the plant is farmed for tequila the byproduct of pulp and fibers is being used experimentally as sheep feed and to make fiberboards.
The dog did not lose her sight, but the injury and the vet bill were certainly painful.

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3 responses to “Awesome Awful Agave americana

  1. How very interesting. how the plant can be used so many different ways. Do they grow naturally in the desert? I remember how one learns to stay away from their pointy ends.

  2. I totally loved this! I laughed, I grimaced, and I jealoused (is that a word?) that you so got into this plant that grows all over my yard with litters in every corner and agave morgues awaiting the uncontained pickup. So, me thinks that you only missed the boat by not trying the tequla thing…let me supply the worms!

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