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.
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.
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.
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′.
Its stately silhouette dominated views from the fort’s chapel and parade ground.
Longer visits allow for quite different images of the same subject. Here, the Quadrangle gate offered a lovely sunset view.
Looking skyward, it was easy to imagine the agave as a Christmas-tree-in-waiting.
(Click image to enlarge)
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Click image to enlarge)
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.
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.