A Tale of Two Centuries

Agave americana ~ Chisos Mountains, Texas
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Call it what you will — century plant, maguey, American aloe — any glimpse of an Agave americana bloom stalk rising up against West Texas mountains, or made to glow by the last rays of the setting sun, is thrilling. A common enough plant, especially in Mexico and the American Southwest, its flowers appear infrequently. When they emerge, it’s an occasion.

Known popularly as the century plant, Agave americana is the largest plant in a large family. In his Agaves of Continental North America, Howard Scott Gentry lists 139 agave species and 197 taxa. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum lists 150 North American species, while other sites simply generalize, saying there are “nearly two hundred agave species in the Americas,” or “over a hundred.”

Often found at mountainous elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, century plants appear in a variety of other settings, and are hard to miss. Their mass of leaves, called a rosette, can reach six or seven feet in height, and span as much as twelve feet in width.Their smooth, rigid leaves are edged with sharp teeth, and terminate in a needle-like tip. For landscapers, finding a nice, out-of-the-way corner for the plants is important.

Clustered century plant rosettes~ Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
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Because the slow-growing plants require between ten and thirty-five years to bloom, the waiting period may feel like a century to someone hoping to witness the event, but the myth of the hundred-year bloom is just that: a myth. Writing in the Scientific American Supplement of July-December, 1903, field naturalist E.W. Nelson noted:

All agaves require years for their development before flowering, and this has given rise to the popular name, “Century Plant,” borne by Agave americana. It is doubtful if any species under natural conditions actually spends more than fifteen or twenty years in maturing.

Nelson goes on to describe the plant’s life cycle:

The large, fleshy leaves…are persistent, and spend all the years of their immaturity in slowly storing up quantities of sweet sap. At the expiration of this long period, which might almost be called a period of incubation, a change occurs in the plant’s organism…
With marvelous rapidity, a gigantic central flower stalk shoots up 20 to 50 feet. This stalk, which is sometimes a foot in diameter at the base, is fed generously from the store of sap in the base and leaves.

The process triggering the agave’s bloom remains somewhat mysterious, but the results of its flowering are predictable. The plant is monocarpic: that is, it blooms only once in its lifetime. After forming its seeds, the leaves and base wither and die, leaving smaller, younger plants to repeat the process. Benito Trevino, a rancher and naturalist from Rio Grande City, Texas, has seen the process multiple times:

 The plant only blooms one time and then it dies. 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.
Agave americana bloom stalk ~ Mission Espíritu Santo, Goliad, Texas
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The flowers themselves grow in clusters at the end of horizontal branches arrayed near the top of the stalk. Facing upward, they give the plant a delightful, candelabrum-like appearance. Despite attracting Mexican long-nose bats, hummingbirds, orioles, and a variety of insects with its nectar, the profusion of flowers can seem a little untidy. The buds are more elegant, if not nearly so tasty from a diner’s point of view.

Agave americana buds, complete with leaf-footed bugs
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Buds into flowers, and a feast of pollen and nectar to enjoy
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The species we know today as Agave americana was mentioned as early as 1552 by Francisco López de Gómara, in his Historia general de las Indias. Charles de L’Ecluse, first director of Holland’s Leiden Botanical Gardens,viewed one in a monastery in Valencia in 1576, sent offsets to a friend in Antwerp, and coined the name American aloe. (Note that aloes and agaves are not related. Aloe is a genus in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae. Agaves belong to the Asparagaceae: a different family which does include the vegetable called asparagus.)

In Agaves of Continental North America, Gentry notes that:

Agaves for ornamental and fiber uses were apparently first carried overseas by both Spaniards and Portuguese: Agave americana to the Azores and Canary Islands; A. angustifolia, A. cantala, and others to Asia and Africa. By the eighteenth century A. americana, A. lurida, and others were established along the Mediterranean coasts.
The spread of the genus to the Old World reached its height in the nineteenth century, when agaves became popular throughout Europe as ornamental succulents in both private and public gardens.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the early 19th century Prussian explorer and naturalist for whom California’s Humboldt Redwoods are named, described the agave as “the most useful of all the crops that nature has granted the people of North America.” Like hemp, its fibers were used by indigenous peoples for clothing, rope, bags, and a form of paper. Its leaves and heart (called piña, because of its resemblance to a pineapple) were roasted as food; its leaves used in roofs and fences; its spines turned into weapons. Most delightfully, the sharp tip at the end of each leaf is attached to fibers running the length of the leaf: a combination which makes for a most convenient needle and thread.

The roasted piña, called mezcal (from the Náhuatl word mexcalli) became such a staple for eastern Apaches that Spaniards began calling them Mescalero. And, as Gentry notes:

When the Spaniards began colonization of more northern regions, like Durango and Saltillo, they took Náhuatl people with them as interpreters, laborers, and farmers. The farmers took maguey with them and established the pulque culture which still persists as the northern fringe of the pulque complex.

Prior to colonizing Mexico’s Central Valley, the Aztecs consumed both aguamiel (“honeywater”) and the fermented version called pulque. Later, the Spanish refined the distillation process to produce mezcal (from Agave americana) and tequila, made only from the blue agave (Agave tequiliana).

¡Para todo mal, mezcal ~para todo bien, también!
(For everything bad, mescal ~ for everything good, the same!)

An agave must be at least six to eight years old before its sap can be harvested. After leaves are removed from the center of the plant, sap begins to pool in the hollow at its base. Several liters may be collected each day for a period of weeks or months. The harvested aguamiel is sweet, with a bit of a bite: not unlike the edges of the plant which produces it.

Pulque gatherer in Mexico ~ c.1900

In 1903, Nelson described pulque production in the valleys of central Mexico:

Pulque, the national drink of the Mexicans, is made from the juice or sap of the Pulque Maguey. The valley of Mexico is the center of cultivation of this plant, and many extensive haciendas or plantations that are devoted entirely to growing it yield large revenues to their owners.
The plants, when two or three years old, are set out in long, parallel rows. They reach maturity in from twelve to fourteen years. In order to insure a succession of harvests, new settings are planted yearly, and even with the long delay in the first crop, the business is very profitable.

Today, cultivation of the maguey continues, but pulque is struggling, undone by the increasing popularity of beer and tequila, and by the difficulties of storing and shipping a continually-fermenting beverage that tends to blow up its own bottles. In 1886, there were 817 pulquerias in Mexico City, and only 9,000 homes. At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of pulquerias served up the traditional beverage; today, there might be a hundred. The answer may be a new image, a better marketing strategy, and a cohort of hipsters ready, as one said, to “get their Azteca on.”

History, botany, and cultural traditions aside, the unique appearance of an Agave americana in bloom is guaranteed to draw attention.

During a brief stay at Goliad’s historic Presidio La Bahia last June, I was delighted to find two century plants vying for my attention.  One bloom stalk had emerged from the group of rosettes shown above. Considering that the wall is about fifteen feet high, and that, standing atop it, I still wasn’t at eye level with the lowest seed clusters, it’s easy to imagine that this one had grown to a height of 40′.

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Its stately silhouette dominated views from the fort’s chapel and parade ground.

Seen from the doorway of Our Lady of Loreto Chapel
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Looking through the Quadrangle gate
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Longer visits allow for quite different images of the same subject. Here, the Quadrangle gate offered a lovely sunset view.

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Looking skyward, it was easy to imagine the agave as a Christmas-tree-in-waiting.

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And, given events that transpired at the Presidio during the Texas Revolution, it was impossible to avoid imagining Colonel Fannin and his men watching an equally beautiful sunset.

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Meanwhile, back at the parade ground, another agave had come to an early, unhappy end. Only a day or two before my arrival, a combination of ground-saturating rains and a fierce, wind-filled storm had toppled the shallow-rooted plant.

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Unfortunate as it was, a prone plant does offer some opportunities. Thanks to the storm, I was able to see both its root system and the fascinating, fibrous interior of its stalk, which resembles nothing so much as a bundle of fiber optic cables.

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Perhaps best of all, the fallen plant allowed for images of buds and flowers which otherwise would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It isn’t every day there’s a chance to photograph century plant flowers while sitting on the ground.

Col. James Fannin’s room was in the south extension of the chapel.
A doorway, now sealed, opened into the Quadrangle; its outline is visible above, in the upper left.
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As interesting as the agave itself was the location of its fall. Inside the fort’s quadrangle, near the church, it could not have been more than a few yards from the spot where Colonel James Fannin was executed during the Texas revolutionary event known as the Goliad Massacre.

On March 27, 1836, after being held captive for a week, Fannin’s men were divided into three groups and marched away from the fort under heavy guard. One group set out on the San Antonio road; another, on the road to Victoria; and a third, on the road leading to Copano, on the coast.

A short distance from the fort, each group was halted. Guards took up positions on only one side of the prisoner ranks, then opened fire at close range. The few survivors who managed to run were pursued and killed by the cavalry. Returning to the fort, soldiers removed about forty wounded men from the chapel, laid them on the ground in front of the chapel doors, and shot them. 

Fannin was the last to be killed. After being taken into the quadrangle from the chapel, he was blindfolded, and made to sit in a chair. After requesting that he not be shot in the face; that his personal possessions be sent to his family; and that he be given a Christian burial, Colonel Fannin was shot in the face; a Mexican officer claimed his personal possessions; and his body was burned.

What happened next is another tale, for another time. Suffice it to say that, while Hollywood and popular history always have remembered the Alamo, the true revolutionary cry in Texas was, “Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!”

Fannin’s death wasn’t the end of the struggle for Texas independence: nor was the toppling of the beautiful century plant the end of its story. When I returned to Presidio La Bahia in November, I found the agave had been tipped upright, trimmed, and tucked into place. Despite obvious damage to some of its leaves, new leaves were forming, and the young plants clustered around it seemed to be cheering it on.

I was doing a little cheering, myself. And those voices I heard in the middle of the night, echoing through the quadrangle? Perhaps they did belong to Fannin and his men: partying on the ramparts, and offering up a mezcal toast to the indomitable little plant.

Agave americana ‘Redivivus’ 
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As always, comments are welcome.
Thanks to Texas Flash Dude for allowing use of his century plant photo from the Chisos Mountains. The source for the pulque farmer photo is noted above.   All other photos are mine.


101 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Centuries

    1. I know there was whiskey around, but there was more at play than liquored-up soldiers and feisty revolutionaries. There was bravery, poor judgment, miscommunication, idealism, and politics — a mix more potent than mezcal, that’s for sure.

  1. What an interesting read and beautiful photography. It made me wonder what native plants or trees around here are ones that people in your part of the world have never seen: i.e., the Agave common to you is exotic to me.

    1. It is interesting to learn about which species grow where. So many of the flowers that I associate with spring never have flourished here. We’re just too warm for lilacs, forsythia, flowering almond, and such. The only forsythia I see is in the grocery store.

      But you do have your very own “Agave americana” — at least, you did. I was going to have a peek to see if there were any agaves native to Michigan, and look what I found, over at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens: your very own blooming agave. There’s a link at the bottom to the original post, but I was completely entranced by their videos of cutting the plant down. And I love that they made a hole in the roof for it to grow through.

    1. It’s amazing what a little sunshine can do, isn’t it? It’s a shame it was so gray and gloomy in November. i certainly was glad I had these photos — and some others of the fort, etc. — for future use.

  2. Your photos are gorgeous! I have fond memories of seeing Agaves in bloom in the high Arizona desert. Those memories also include many very pleasant camping trips that went along with them!

    1. In earlier drafts, I referred to a high desert sunset in the first sentence, and then took it out, because I didn’t want to leave the impression that agaves belong only to the Big Bend and the Southwest. Now, you’ve brought the desert back — along with your good memories.

      I’m sure those camping trips were filled with as many delights as your forays into the mountains. I still remember a wonderful trip across New Mexico. It was the first time I’d seen cactus blooming in great masses: yellow and red. It was simply stunning.

  3. I thought I was clicking into a Best of Times Worst of Times type of post in A Tale of Two Centuries and find a remarkably long lived plant with a single lifetime reproductive phase instead. A very interesting post about something I probably did take for granted.

    Enjoyed very much the photographs too…particularly the close up of the flowers of the toppled specimen. The detail and colors of that are so attractive and the greens and yellows against the grey stoney wall….very pretty. I love grey stoney forts anyway!!

    1. That was my little joke when I chose the title, Judy. I’d bumped into several best-and-worst-of-times references lately, so the book was on my mind.

      As so often happens, there were things in the photos of the buds and flowers I didn’t see at the time: particularly, the leaf-footed bugs. And you can’t believe how many bees were swarming over the plant. Even in its fallen state, the plant was feeding its world.

      You’ll have a chance to see more of the fort. This is the first in a series that I have planned. I’ve been trying to get at it, but as the saying goes, so many subjects, so little time. Besides, I kept running into snippets like “Gentry lists 139 agave species and 197 taxa.” I didn’t have a clue how there could be more taxa than species. There went Saturday afternoon. I won’t write about things I don’t understand (or at least think I understand!) so some of this is taking more time than I’d expected. But it surely is fun.

      It wasn’t until my last drafts, and a little more reading, that I bumped up against a mention of that walled-up door. When I went back and looked, and discovered I’d captured it, I was so pleased. And like you, I loved the look of the flowers against the fort — which was established in its current location in 1749, almost three centuries ago.

        1. I’m happy for that confirmation.That’s what I finally decided, albeit with a lot of pencil chewing. I did find sites that included diagrams as well as huge blocks of text, and that helped.

          I found this helpful page for writing plant names, too, and a chart showing how to indicate sub-species, cultivars, and such. By the time I hit “publish” with this one, I was tired.

  4. These are interesting stories. I enjoy tequila, but, never have had mezcal. It deserves a test.

    My brother and his spouse are in Split, Croatia, on the Adriatic. He sent back a picture recently of this agave plant near their walking path. I hope the link works. http://bit.ly/1n71uIj

    1. The link does work, Jim, and it’s a fine photo. I noticed that the leaves of the rosette are visible at the bottom. That’s a nice touch. I thought it was interesting that the plant had traveled from here to there so many years ago, and it’s great to have an real-life report of one growing there today. It’s quite a coincidence, really.

      I’m fond of margaritas, but that’s the limit of my tequila drinking, and I’ve never tried mezcal. I did read a few interesting articles about small mezcal producers. Apparently the “artisanal” movement has come to agave distilling, too, and you can find brands specific to certain villages. After my experience with tequila shots, I suspect I’d not be able to tell one mezcal from the other.

      1. I’ve seen a couple of stories about artisanal growers. We enjoy tequila now and then straight. Most of our liquors we drink that way. Just not too much of them.

  5. I can’t help thinking this is a tale of two natures as well; the plant which gives sweetness and succour, and man who marauds and massacres.

    And a tale of one plant and two countries….my fellow NZ blogger Lynley did a lovely series on an agave americana in Wellington. There was no redivivus in this case as far as I can remember. ;)

    1. You found my little joke, Gallivanta. It took some research to find the proper way to notate “redivivus” as a cultivar, but it seemed like that was the way to go. Sometimes I just can’t help amusing myself. It’s always double the fun when someone else spots it.

      Your friend’s post was interesting, and it was nice to see the photos, too. Over at a site called Dave’s Garden, I found some discussion of “Agave americana” in New Zealand and Australia, and some very frustrated gardeners. Here’s a taste of the comments:

      “On Jan 12, 2016, Bigmac6 from Napier, New Zealand wrote:

      Worst mistake I ever made was to plant some agave americanas and prickly pear. Seem to be resistant to many weed killers- nearly killed a nearby avocado though. Tried the chainsaw – pulp everywhere and as it was a hot day had bare arms and legs – became very itchy and took lots of soothing cream to make life acceptable. The plant fibre got into the chainsaw oil pump drive and ruined that.

      The pups are now all out of control. I tried drilling holes into the agaves and prickly pears and dosing with neat roundup at 450 g/L – concentrated. They laughed at me. I made a little impact with picloram and I am about to try getting serious with that – drill, spray with penetrant, a mixture with diesel to try to get through the waxy layer.

      Don’t plant either if you want to remain friends with your garden.”

      There are more comments in the same vein, and more than a few from folks who remind the frustrated ones that knowing what you’re dealing with always is good in a garden, whether you’re doing the planting yourself, or dealing with something left by someone else.

      After reading the chainsaw comments, it occurred to me that in all the photos of agave harvesting I looked at, the old-fashioned methods still were being used. I suspect I know the reason, now.

      1. I think ‘redivivus’ is very funny. And, although I shouldn’t, I am having a giggle about Agave Americana plant-rage in New Zealand. We do need to be more cautious about what we plant where. Many people would probably be surprised to learn that NZ plants and critters have become a terrible nuisance overseas. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/blogs/in-our-nature/7571115/When-our-own-species-invade Our beloved Pohutukawa has also caused serious rage in San Francisco.

        1. That’s quite an interesting and well-written piece. Humorous, too. Here in Texas, we’re dealing with zebra mussels, which are terrible little beasties.

          Of all the things that gave me a smile in that piece, the comment by “His Lordship” ranked right up there. He said, “It is strangely heartening that, among all the stories you hear of exotic species ripping apart our native flora and fauna, we are dealing a few punches of our own.”


          1. Yikes. I hope we don’t get zebra mussels here. We already have sufficient little beasties from elsewhere. Yes, His Lordship did make me smile but his comment also reminds me that native and invasive can be two faces of the same plant.

  6. I love all of the little segues that you incorporate into all of your posts. When I lived in California, I loved watching the odd, “wild” century plant bloom. You could see them from the highway, behind the noise pollution walls, but I always felt sad that the plant goes with one final “hurrah” to a world that usually ignores its presence in the environment. Still, I’d never really made the connection to yucca. And that place you stayed is gorgeous!

    1. I learned so much with this post, Alex. I knew that yucca and agave were related, for example, but I didn’t realize that, even though they’re in the same famiily, they’re different genera. Honestly, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know the plural of “genus” is “genera.”

      There will be more posts about the Presidio. I fall in love pretty easily, and I’ve fallen in love with that place. It has a terrific history, and, as lagniappe, is well known among the ghost hunters as a likely location for an encounter. There are people who wouldn’t be one bit surprised that I heard voices in the courtyard.

      Speaking of ghosts, this tidbit about yuccas might interest you:

      ” Another, more evocative name for them is ‘ghosts in the graveyard.’ This comes from the high number of yuccas growing wild in forgotten graveyards, where their large white flower clusters appear as ‘ghosts’ in the moonlight.”

      A botanical ghost story? Why not? I think you could do it!

  7. I have always had a great love for the agave plant, and rejoiced at it’s popularity when I visited Mexico, many years ago. I was under the impression that the plants grew here and there because of a similarity of the climate. But I learn now from this post, that the plants were found originally in Mexico and in the southwest of the US, and brought to the Mediterranean and to Europe intentionally.

    In any case, there is something very beautiful and exciting about the plants… and I believe there are some plants of this type that are also used for medicine. I love the alcoholic beverages very much as well. I can well imagine that their slow growth makes them less popular these days, when there is such a desire for immediate gratification.

    1. LIke you, Shimon, I had assumed that agaves were native to Europe and the Mediterranean. I was surprised to find they were carried there by collectors and botanists It seems the branch of science called phytogeography, or plant geography, tracks such things, and that Baron von Humboldt, mentioned above, is considered the “father” of the science.

      Some of the correspondence I’ve read makes clear that botanists found these plants as beautiful and exciting as we do. It’s easy to forget that some of our “garden variety” plants once were considered exotics, and much sought after.

      I did find medicinal uses for agave mentioned. One that amused me was mezcal as a remedy for rheumatism; patients were to rub it on their affected joints. I suspect drinking it might have done better.

      Whether people find the agaves’ slow growth problematic, I can’t say. But there’s little doubt many are adopting it in landscapes here because it is so hardy, and does well in dry or drought-like conditions.

  8. Interesting for me too dear Linda, I haven’t known before. They are amazing plant. In my own language I learned that we call patient plant… how nice… Thank you so much for this such a beautiful post. Love, nia

    1. What a fine name, Nia. I think the plant surely is patient, waiting for its bloom, and I think the people waiting must be patient, too.

      We have a lovely garden flower called “impatiens.” It’s name comes from the word “impatient,” because it seems eager to shoot its seeds here and there. I wonder how the agave and the impatiens would get along?

      1. exactly dear Linda, botanic world is amazing. I know this garden flower, we have here too and they are at the windows of the house and we call them “window beauty”…. Thank you dear Linda, have a nice day, love, nia

    1. It occurred to me this afternoon that we’re in the same fix as the agave: bloom once, then die. The only questions are, when will we bloom, and for how long? Even posing those questions requires a certain confidence, don’t you think?

      (I’m still amazed that the goldfish get a second, or even third, shot at it all.)

        1. I have the same problem with reincarnation as with immortality of the soul: the body-soul duality. It’s just not one of my core beliefs. We’re created body-and-soul, and so we die. After that? Well, who knows, really? Even Christians confuse traditional teachings about resurection with immortality, but I guess I’ve seen the death-and-resurrection motif so often in life, it’s easy for me to extend it beyond death.

          In any event, I have my convictions about how this all plays out, and I’m happy enough to live by the old saying: “The question isn’t whether there’s life after death. The question is, is there life before death?” (I need to ask the Quote Investigator whether Jack Parr really is the source for that.)

          Mary Oliver puts it a little more elegantly.

  9. What fascinating information, Linda! Having lived in Texas, I of course had seen century plants, but I’m thrilled to learn they bloom oftener than 100 years. And how wonderful it is that the one that toppled over has a new lease on life!

    Poor Fannin. Somehow I sensed that his final wishes wouldn’t be honored. What a shame! Our early heroes didn’t become such for no reason, huh?

    I’ve never had mezcal…or tequila, for that matter. Yes, they need a better marketing plan!

    Love your photos, especially the sunsets!

    1. I’ll bet you’ve had tequila, Debbie — at least, if you’ve had a Margarita, you have. Margaritas are nice, but I’ll not be taking my tequila neat. Like bat wing soup and fried termites, it was something to try. Once.

      It did make me happy to see the plant growing again. Second chances are good: even for plants. I’m anxious to see what it looks like the next time I pass through Goliad. It was June when it toppled, and Thanksgiving when I took the last photo: five months. In another five months, it ought to be doing fine.

      Col. Fannin was an interesting fellow. He made some bad decisions along the way, and the truth of the matter is, if the Mexicans had just let him and his troops wander off, defeated, history might have been quite different. But, they helped to turn them into heroes with martyrdom, and gave the Texians a new rallying cry. If you liked the “Come and Take It” flag with the cannon, wait until you see the Goliad flag!

  10. Very interesting read, especially since I consumed my fair share of blue agave nectar (tequila), some of the finest I’ve ever tasted, while in the Yucatan last September. I really enjoyed this. Now, I wonder whether the ones I have growing at Camp Dularge are Americana or blue agave? Interesting, indeed!

    1. I’d bet yours are Agave americana, Wendy. It should be easy enough to check, since there are real differences between the two. The blue agave has more spear-like leaves, it doesn’t grow as tall, the flower spike is shorter, and so on. Do an image search for blue agave, and you should have the answer. (Unless, of course, you have a different species altogether.)

      The more I think about this, the more tempted I am to try mezcal — all in the spirit of scientific inquiry, of course. But it’s going to be one drink, at a restaurant. I just priced it by the bottle, and I’m not laying out $40 or more, even for science.

      By the way — what’s this I hear about Schmoopy’s being for sale? I nearly died when I heard that. Can you still get pistolettes there? What’s the scoop?

      1. I will see if I can ID my agave soon. We brought back a bottle of mezcal from Playa del Carmen, and there’s a little left in the freezer. I can save it for when you come! It is STRONG! Things have been very slow at Schmoopy’s, and Connie told me last week that she put it up for sale on Facebook, but I don’t know how serious she is. Things are just very slow. And yes I think they still have the pistolettes.

        1. Everything has been slow around here, too. Part of it was December and January’s terrible weather. The tourism and fishing both were affected, and there’s been a lot of shoulder shrugging and, “Well, what can you do”-ing. Everyone’s hoping that things pick up in February.

          1. I doubt things will pick up in Feb. down here. Not until March, most likely. I’m thinking it might be time to plan a garden, get some hens, and maybe more honey bees, and turn my time to the homestead . . . . .

  11. I was pulled in, in a second, by your pictures and your glorious info about Agave’s. Years ago I had a Flowering Agave down below my house and it was the first of many, to flower….I was able to get some Fantastic pictures of the whole process and hundreds of photo’s of Hummingbirds and Bees, etc., Supping at this Amazing Flowering. It took about nine months for the Stalk to grow—looking exactly like an Asparagus—-and then the Gorgeous Flowering was truly stunning. I wrote a number of posts about the whole process and I posted many many many pictures with Hummingbirds and other Birds, too, having a bit of a drink…..! I have quite a few Agave species in my Cactus Garden…..(Well, my whole Garden is Cactus and Succulents…) ALL are just Gorgeous in Shape and Size…….
    Thanks for this, my dear….I enjoyed it sooooo very very much!

    1. Naomi, after reading your comment, I felt just a tiny bit silly. I was right there, looking at that baby bloom stalk by the chapel. I took its photo. I posted the photo here — and I still didn’t see the connection between the agave stalk and an asparagus stalk. But there it is — and of course it makes sense, since they’re in the same family.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I remember your cactus and succulent garden, and the conversations we had when my cactus first bloomed. Now, I understand that there are many more of these wonderful plants than I ever imagined, and that they’re far most interesting.

      One thing I wish I’d known is that many succulents are monocarpic — that they only bloom once, then die. I’ve had some in the past that I was certain I’d killed. Now, I’m not so sure. They may have faded away naturally.

      How lucky you were to be able to watch the creatures that fed on your agaves. There were bees and wasps aplenty feeding on the agave flowers when I took the photos. What I didn’t know is that the Mexican long-nosed bat has a special relationship with the plant, and also feeds on it. If I’d known when I was there, I would have gone out at night to see if I could see some bats — but of course, I didn’t know.

      I went over to your blog and did a search — one of the first posts I pulled up was the one about the yellowbird and the blooming agave. I’m thrilled to know about your posts — I’ll be coming by to read them. Thanks so very much for letting me know about them! xoxo ~ Linda

    1. Thanks so much for those links, Ken. I went over to his blog, and really enjoyed reading the posts.. I’m looking forward to browsing through his other entries.

      The piece about making twine was especially interesting. If you click on this link for the photo of the interior of the broken stalk, you can see some of the fibers that have pulled loose from the leaf. There are three of four of them, and they look just as strong as he suggested.

      I’m so glad to know you’re still reading along. Just this week, I began working on a boat at Portofino, over by the edge of the channel. It’s such fun to work there, especially with all the birds that are around now. I’ve seen one loon, and two redhead ducks in the midst of the pelicans and gulls. Some jobs just have better benefits than others.

      It’s so nice to see you. Keep well!

  12. I became more familiar with agave when I started reading more about succulents in general. These plants are one of the reasons I felt that Colorado (where I was living at the time) was a desert and AZ was a lush living mystery. I still think that.

    Wish I had the funds to enjoy a long visit to your area. You would be such a guide! Guess I have to save up. Beautiful photos.

    1. Since I found the University of Michigan pampering their very own Agave americana, I went browsing to see what I might find for Wisconsin. The answer is: not much. In a quick browse, I found one nursery page with a bit of inaccurate information, and a couple of scientific papers from the University. Clearly, you’re going to have to head south to enjoy the agaves — or buy a tiny one in a pot.

      Thanks for the nice words about the photos. I have a few others that I really like, but I removed one and didn’t put in two, which are abstracts. Here’s one showing the front of the tipped rosette. It gives a better sense of the sheer size of the thing. The stalk’s a little hard to pick out, but it’s at the bottom, left. Amazing, really.

    1. Have you seen it in England, Andy? I saw several sites advertising it as a suitable plant for “tropical Britain.” Now, there’s a phrase I’ve never heard.

      From what I can tell, “tropical Britain” is more a horticultural vision than a geographic location, but I’ll give them points for trying.

      I still was using my old camera for the photos, but I was happy enough with the results. I even managed an abstract view of the leaves that pleased me a good bit.

    1. It is extraordinary, isn’t it? Once I learned that orioles and hummingbirds feed on it, and that the longnose bat pollinates it, the position of the flower clusters makes sense, too. There’s plenty of open space around each cluster for the birds and bats to swoop in.

      I couldn’t put everything in the post, but you might be interested in this article about the interdependence of the agave and the bats. It’s just one more bit of proof that we break the connections among species at our own risk.

  13. Those plants remind me of giraffes – what a delight (for you, not the plant…sort of sad like that beached whale) to find one horizontal.

    I love the way you always weave history into your posts – there is so much interconnectivity between plants and historical events of the area.
    I thought that 3rd pix was going to be my favorite – but then came the ones through the doorway – those stalks look like kids playing hide and seek.

    The final image with the contrast between rock, plant with curves, yet pointed leaves all seems to sum up your tale.
    Great story

    1. Giraffes! What a perfect comparison: especially in the way they force us to look up. I might not have paid so much attention to the poor agave, had I not discovered through an interpretive sign nearby that it had fallen where Fannin had fallen. It was pure serendipity, and so thought-provoking.

      The third photo (if you mean the one with the growing stalk by the white-washed church) actually was taken the day after Christmas, 2014. I was on my way from San Antonio to Port O’Connor, and decided to stop and have a look at the mission. That was a fruitful trip. It led to the series of posts about Indianola, and now I’ll go back and pick up on Presidio La Bahia.

      I love that last photo. Don’t you think the plant’s leaves look ilke a “V” for victory?

    1. I am happy. I’m hoping for even more improvement now that I’ve made a couple of discoveries.

      Sunday before last, on the day I found my little treetop goldfinch, I had a bit of a revelation. It wasn’t enough to switch from the automatic setting to, say, aperture setting. If I was going to use a manual setting, I needed to move the little toggle switch from “A” to “M.” Then, it occurred to me. That lens focus ring? Maybe “manual focus” means — well, manual focus. Lo and behold, when I rotated the ring, the image became sharp, little focus points popped up, and I swear I heard the camera whisper, “I wondered how long it was going to take you…”

      What can I say? I’d even read the manual, multiple times. But the discovery was sweet, and even exciting. Now I can’t wait to get out and test my new knowledge.

      1. For those of us who got into photography four or five decades ago, all cameras were manual cameras. My first versatile camera, a Pentax Spotmatic in 1969, was a breakthrough because it had a built-light meter; that still meant manual setting of the film speed, the aperture, and the shutter speed, but as the photographer adjusted those last two, a little needle in the viewfinder would go up and down indicating whether there was too much light at that setting or not enough. At a right setting, the needle would settle in the middle. And of course focus was manual too. I didn’t get my first autofocus SLR until 2003, and it was still a film camera.

        1. Technological change is good, but the arrival of the point-and-shoot certainly made it possible to take photos without understanding a thing about how cameras work. Even with the little Kodaks I had in my younger years, knowing how to put in the film, and then get it out without exposing it, was really all that was necessary.

          Here’s an interesting postscript. In my response to Susan, at the bottom of this thread, I added some links to an up-coming event at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. One of the music professors there is giving a February concert with a Japanese Shakuhachi flute he made from the saved stalk of their agave.

  14. We had an agave bloom last year at Denver Botanic Gardens. I came upon it unexpectedly and was gib-smacked at its height, its blooms and its spirit. Desert flora is simply exquisite in its ability to flourish with such style.

    1. It is exquisite. And your comment about style reminded me that I’d seen some photos of Dale Chihuly’s agave. I wouldn’t mind these growing in my front yard, either.

      Aren’t unexpected encounters wonderful?

  15. There’s a house on the road I take to go to the library where our Tuesday night knitting group meets that had about five Agave americana in the front yard, all of them in bloom. I meant to get a picture of them, but never had time and my camera together at the same time. It was spectacular to see the blooming stalks in among the juniper trees in the yard with their brilliant mustard yellow flowers.

    I have some choice things to say about Santa Ana, but since this is a family blog, let’s just say, the man had no honor.

    1. That would have been quite a sight. Given their unpredictable blooming, I wonder what it was about that location that allowed them to bloom in concert? I did come across a scientific article that was so far beyond me I barely could read a sentence, but it made the point that one factor that seems to contribute to Agave americana blooming is substantial rain — but two years prior to the actual bloom.

      More and more often, I find myself thinking, “Darn! I wish I had my camera.” I’m trying to do something about that.

  16. What an interesting post! I have a fascination for once in a lifetime flowering plants! Agaves certainly sound like a useful plant as well as having such presence, I love the needle and thread fact, I can imagine that that came in handy! What a beautiful pic of the agave from the doorway of the chapel! Poor Colonel Fannin, how awful to be betrayed like that. Glad the plant was righted again, and that you got to see them in flower.xxx

    1. I’ve always known that some plants take time to flower, like my plumeria and cereus cactus, but it never had occurred to me that some would bloom only once. I’ve discovered that certain bromeliads do the same. Do you cultivate such plants, or just admire them?

      I’ve found there are divided opnions on the use and usefulness of the needle and thread combination, but no one doubts that the tip of the leaf can be used as an awl. I found, too, that many people cut the tips when the leaf still is young, just to save some trouble. I know someone who put an agave tip in her eye, and though she recovered and her sight wasn’t affected, it was scary.

      I like that photo from the chapel door, too. I didn’t realize until I looked at it later that it has such a nice combination of red, green, and blue: along with the plant, of course.

      I have a friend who’s taken to calling the flowering agave “El Tippi.” It will be fun to see how he does in the coming year.

  17. Linda, thanks so much for digging out these delightful bits of nature. I love your ability to research, assimilate, and give back to us such interesting information. If you were not doing that, I would be missing so much! I loved both the nature and history involved. Thanks.

    1. Well, you know the truth, Oneta. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be missing so much. I find it all terrifically enjoyable, and I think it’s wonderful that other people are interested, too.

      Besides, there are so many resources available to us now, who wouldn’t want to do a little exploring? I was curious whether any of the German naturalists roaming Texas had mentioned Agave americana, and, that led me to a collection of letters written by Ferdinand Lindheimer to George Engleman, back in the mid-1800s. He didn’t have much to say about agave (at least in the book I have) but I got caught up in the letters, and spent a couple of hours delighting in all they contained: plenty of gossip, as well as notes about flowers!

      Sometimes, I’m happy to go to work. That’s when a good bit of the assimilation takes place. It’s a blessing to have great chunks of time to think during the day.

  18. Linda, this was so informative! I did not know any of this. I’d like to put my Aztec on, and drink some of hat fermented goodness. :)

    It was very interesting to see those plants and close ups of buds and blooms in your photos. Do you know how old was that plant that toppled over? Considering the height of that stalk, it would need a huge root system to support it.

    I would love to see how they use ‘needle and thread’ Actually, I just googled, and will be watching some videos with kids. I love it how you completely immersed yourself in your surrounding nature and history of your place, I would have never guessed that you are not a Texan Lady after all. :)

    1. I don’t know the age of the plant, Bee. I’ll call the Presidio tomorrow and see if someone knows. I’d say the fellow in charge of maintenance might, but it depends on their record-keeping. The plant could have been decades older than anyone working there.

      The root system really is pretty shallow, and doesn’t extend much beyond the diameter of the plant. It was extraordinary rain and wind that took it down. They’d had inches and inches of rain — many fields were flooded – and my first morning in town, a couple was selling what veggies they had left on the town square. They said the storm had been so bad it flattened all their sweet corn, ripped tomatoes from vines, and so on.

      There was a dried stalk in one of the fort’s rooms that I thought might have been the one growing out front, but not so. The tall, stately one in the photos just was taken down and removed. Of course, there’s an abundance of bloom stalks in the area, and they can’t keep them all.

      Take a look at the links Ken left in his comment, up above. The blog he mentions has wonderful tips of all sorts. I haven’t browsed it as much as I want just yet, but what I’ve seen is great.

      You know, it’s funny. If someone asks me now where I’m from, I say Texas. I’ll share details of comings and goings over the years with friends, but I can’t imagine not living here. It’s been sort of like this.

      1. :) I guess so. I hit my 20 years in the good old US of A this year, and now I do feel like it is my home here.
        Great, thank you, I will check out Ken’s links.

  19. Years ago, when I had a greenhouse at my disposal, my collection included an agave. I can attest to the need for them to be out of the way. Those spines are very sharp and puncture deeply into softer flesh.
    A related plant, Yucca, does well here in the northeast and is often found in gardens and flowering islands decorating yards…even median strips such as in the the Garden State (N.J.) Turnpike. ( I admittedly have not driven there in years, so that may no longer be the case)

    1. I learned my lesson with Agave americana when a friend gave me a little one — about a foot wide — in a pot. It grew well, and I repotted it twice, then put it into the yard. Unfortunately, I put it too close the the hose bib. I thought four feet away would be plenty, but that plant felt dirt beneath its feet and took off. It wasn’t long before hooking up the hose became a real adventure.

      I know so little about New Jersey, but my first thought was that the ocean would moderate temperatures. Now I know that there’s the Delaware River to help out, and yes: it’s a climate where yuccas could thrive. It must be nice to have a little of the Southwest in the Northeast.

      1. These particular Yuccas don’t require moderation and do well here in New England too even with our harsh winters. We also are able to grow one species of Opuntia but I don’t have the name handy.

  20. Oh, Fannin’s story is so sad. I just want to say “You meanies! How could you at least not pass his things along as he wished.” And shooting in the face seems like adding injury to insult.

    All fascinating history but of course my real fascination is with this remarkable plant. I had never heard of agave (aloe, yes, agave no) until maybe five or six years ago when it started popping up in recipes more frequently. When we had oatmeal at my cousin’s in Flagstaff on a cold December morning, we had agave on it, rather than the usual brown sugar and it was so delicious. I never knew where it came from — I assumed a plant but who knew? So, this is fascinating. And yes, the photos of the grounded plant really offered some special and unique opportunities for some outstanding photography.

    Looking closely at the photos I am quite sure I’ve never seen an agave plant — certainly not here. They really are stunning.

    1. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Santa Ana described as a meanie, but he certainly was. On the other hand, there were other Mexican commanders and private citizens who did what they could to save some of Fannin’s men, and others. One was Francita Alavez, the so-called “Angel of Goliad.” Her story’s as interesting as some of the other Texas women I’ve written about, and a statue of her was erected on the Presidio grounds.

      Agave nectar is interesting. It doesn’t come from Agave americana (the century plant), but from Agave tequilana (blue agave) and Agave salmiana. Knowing how interested you are in foods, you might want to read this article about how it’s processed. Part of the reason it’s only recently been showing up in products is that the processing techniques weren’t developed until the 1990s.

      As for Michigan agave? There was a beauty up in Ann Arbor in 2014. There are some great photos and videos here!

  21. What a thorough post full of info. The Chinese have an aloe drink and like to add aloe in their drinkable desserts. I wonder if that ingredient, the aloe, comes from this plant you have researched on. Beautiful photos btw.

    1. Aloe and Agave are quite different plants, Arti. Here’s a nice page that shows an example of each, side by side, and details some of the similarities and differences. Aloe drinks and beauty products come from the aloe plants, like aloe vera. I’m sure you know that aloe vera’s also a good first aid for burns. Many people who don’t otherwise garden keep a pot or two around, just for that.

      I’m glad you liked the photos, too. My first trip to the Presidio was my first outing after my eye surgery, and it was pure delight.

    1. That must have been a delightful experience, watching it grow to maturity. It’s hard to imagine that kind of growth rate. On the other hand, once our asparagus decided to break the soil, it didn’t mess around, either.

      Thanks so much for your kind words. It was a fun post to write, and I’m glad people seem to be enjoying it.

  22. I knew nothing of this plant, so many thanks for bringing me up to speed! Your allusion to a Christmas tree in waiting made me wonder if this plant has ever been used as such. At any rate, a great post with lovely photographs to help out those of us who aren’t likely to see one in our locales!

    1. Allen, I’d meant to include a link back to my tumbleweed Christmas tree post, as I had a photo of the decorated agave Christmas tree there. Since I forgot, here’s another, closer view of the tree and the altar at Espiritu Santo mission. It does take a big space, but it certainly looks good.

      No, I don’t think you’ll see one on your walks. If you do, take a photo so the rest of us can see it. And tell your botanists!

  23. I knew I was going to have to devote the entire morning–OK, an hour of it and two cups of coffee–to reading a post of yours with accompanying comments. Wuff. From pulque to Fannin to a Mary Oliver reading. My thinker needs a little nap.

    I am so easily distracted by details. The needle and thread, for example. Not that I know how to employ that combination to good effect, but I admire the range of utility of the plant. Fiber is much more historically important than I generally appreciate. (A hiking friend used to do woods survival workshops. His first lesson was always making cordage. Not that I did that, either, I’m just saying.)

    I loved the survival of the toppled agave. Of course the little agave plants clustered around it. They wanted to hear its stories.

    Thank you. Gerry, Blogger Redivivus

    1. Aren’t we something? I’m going to have to change that invitation to “Ya’ll come back now, y’hear?” “Blogger Redivivus,” indeed, and we’re happy for it.

      Like you, I get fascinated by details. Take the use of “Agave americana” for paper, for example. This section of the so-called Maguey plan apparently depicts an Aztec “chinampa.” It was drawn on paper made of maguey, in the 16th century. Maguey paper has a texture much like parchment, though in some cases much finer, and it’s obviously long-lived.

      Everyone loves a good story. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that the little plants would cluster at the feet of El Tippee. Now, here’s a question to ponder: could that plant produce a second bloom? I’m pretty sure I won’t be around to see it, but it’s fun to think so.

      1. I believe I am counting on that plant to bloom again. I am also fascinated by the notion of very long-lived maguey paper . . . which reminds me of Margaret Atwood salting away her new novel for a hundred years, when it will be printed on paper made from trees that are being planted now.

  24. Very interesting post, specially how you tied it with the history of Texas. Agave americana grows here also, but in higher altitudes as it needs drier weather. The northern coastal areas here are too humid for them. In Florida they thrive well. Now the Agave tequiliana (blue Agave) is huge, it’s about 8 ft. wide at least. There’s one a couple of blocks away, and I’m just hoping it will bloom one day.

    1. You’ve raised an interesting question for me, Maria. We have many Agave americana plants around my area, but I don’t recall seeing any in Galveston, about twenty-five miles south, and on the coast.I don’t know if I haven’t noticed them, or if they aren’t there. The good news is that it won’t be hard to find an answer.

      I looked at a couple of suggested plant lists for Galveston, and they were listed, but only for use as specimen plants. TNothing was said about their tolerance for humidity, but they aren’t listed as a salt-tolerant plant: as the yuccas are.

      It would be wonderful if your neighboring agave would bloom. If I remember correctly, they tend to bloom a little sooner than the century plant: at least, generally. I suppose individual plants will vary. Still, it would make for some posts if you get to watch the process.

    1. I was fascinated by the popularity of the agave, and the accounts of their travels back to Europe and the Mediterranean.They probably were quite easy to transport and re-establish. I’ve just recently snapped off some of my Opuntia pads. They’ll callus off and lay around quite happily for another month or two. Then, as soon as my pottted ones show growth, I’ll plop the others in dirt. Two months on a ship would be nothing for an agave.

      I’m very happy you enjoyed the post.

  25. I had no idea an agave plant could grow to such a height. Of course, as your story of the toppled one shows, it is then perhaps more vulnerable in storms . . . so how happy I was to later read: “When I returned to Presidio La Bahia in November, I found the agave had been tipped upright, trimmed, and tucked into place.”

    1. Well, you know what they say: any fort in a storm.

      What you may not have expected is a musical connection to Agave americana. One of the plants grew, bloomed, and was removed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2014. You can read about that here.

      I remembered a throw-away line in the 2014 story about a music professor who was going to make a flute from the stalk. He did, and is giving a concert the first weekend in February at the Botanical Gardens. I called a friend in Lansing and told her about it. She’s only an hour or so away, and her fellow is a flute player. It would be wonderful if they could attend.

      The flute itself is an example of a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. I found a nice example of a shakuhachi being played — a contemporary example, of course. And here’s the sound of an agave flute.

  26. Wow, I’m impressed by the amount of research you did to pull this post together. I’m sure that I’ve seen agave plants, but I didn’t know anything about their unique history until I read this post.

    1. The further I went with this one, Sheryl, the more I realized how little I knew about botany.It can be a bit of a shock to realize the size of those knowledge gaps. But it was fun to learn some things I can make use of in the future, and to finally sort out some terms that always had confused me. I’m glad you enjoyed the results of the research.

      It’s a little like cooking, I suppose. If you don’t understand your ingredients, the results may not be quite what you intended. (And speaking of cooking, I just realized I forgot to send you that cabbage recipe. I just sent it in an email. )

  27. Thanks to you, Linda, I now know a great deal about the provenance of the bottle of agave nectar, ” organic sweetener from the blue Weber agave plant” sitting in my kitchen! I use it instead of sugar and can recommend it to all your readers who want an organic, tasty alternative to refined sugar.

    1. I’ve seen more products touting their use of agave sweetener over the last year or two. Here’s one interesting article about the product, and how it’s processed. A couple of my friends suggested using it because it’s “not refined,” but that’s not quite right, as the article points out. What is true is that it has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners, and you can use less to achieve the same level of sweetness: definitely a plus.

      I thought it was interesting that, in the native way of making the syrup, they ended up with dark and light syrups, much like we have grades of maple syrups.

  28. Fascinating story about this interesting plant. I think it is too late for me to plant one and see it bloom! Your photos are incredible. We are seeing agave syrup in more places now that the healthy weight issue is so prevalent.

    1. It’s not too late if you find an overachiever, Kayti. Besides, I’m still waiting for my transplanted African violets to bloom. Two of the six have come back, so I’m talking nicely to the others.

      All this nutritional talk roused my curiosity, so I looked up the caloric values for various sweeteners. Agave syrup comes in at 60 calories per tablespoon, and granulated sugar at 40. The advice is to use less — perhaps an iffy proposition in this society. Here’s another article worth pondering. It looks just a bit like a triumph of marketing over true nutritional value — we certainly have seen that before. Choose it if you like, but use it wisely, seems to apply: just as it does with honey, maple syrup, and the various sugars.

  29. The agave is such a fascinating plant. And have so many uses. I have always been intrigued by it, all from the first time I saw one in the Canary Islands as a kid. Thanks for sharing your immense knowledge about the agave.

    1. One of the wonderful things about the plant is how easily it adapted after being carried from its home. I’ve been surprised by the number of places where it grows, and now I can add the Canary Islands to the list. That’s a place I have been, and I can imagine the plants fitting perfectly well into that beautiful landscape.

      Isn’t it interesting, how childhood impressions stay with us? You remember the agave, while I remember experiencing the deep, silent forests of northern Minnesota for the first time. What a rich world we live in, and how wonderful it is that we have these memories.

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