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19 June 2014

bones' apothecary: agave

I have an agave in my front yard. You'd think a plant in a category called "succulent" would be... I don't know, nicer.

It could double as a guard, if it were just a little closer to the gate. Back before I knew what this cursed plant was (not so long ago), I referred to it as "that stabby plant out front." It's kind of a jerk, with its stabbiness. The sharp points are actually darker than the rest of the plant, so if you're not looking right at them (and are unfamiliar with the plant, as I was), it'll sneak-shank you as you walk by.

Yeah, me and this plant did not start out as friends. And honestly, "friends" is too nice a word for our current working relationship, which mostly involves me leaving That Stabby Plant alone.

Recently (tonight) I learned that pretty much that whole plant is edible. Also, when roasted, the inside of those pulpy leaves (aka, your shank-wielders) tastes like molasses.
You hear that Stabby? I could totally eat you. And revenge shall be sweet. 

Fortunately for Stabby, I don't own this property, and me removing a 7-foot agave that's probably ancient would not go over well with my landlord. So Stabby and I won't be parting ways any time soon.

Unless. Unless Stabby decides to flower.
I've learned all sorts of things about agaves tonight. For instance: most species only flower once in their lifetimes. Once they've flowered, they die; in other words, agaves are semelparous. A few (not the ones my region of the world) can get away with flowering twice before they're done. One gardening blogger recommended being "mean" to your agave plant - not encouraging them to reproduce, by not making their environment ideal. Withhold the pampering - the extra rations of water, the especially fertile soil - and your lovely agave could last decades! I might start fertilizing mine.

Not only out of spite though. No really! These plants are incredibly useful!

The seeds can be ground into flour.
The blossoms can be eaten, though they're bitter if not boiled first.
The flower stalks can be roasted and eaten, or juiced to make pulque - the main ingredient in tequila. I'm pretty sure that means agaves are medicinal.
The leaves can be roasted and eaten (you'll want to remove the husk after roasting, and before consuming).
The fibers from the stalks and leaves can be used in all sorts of things, if you're crafty like that. Weaving, brushes, et cetera.

It takes For Ever for one of these plants to bloom, though. Their common name is "century plant," because it feels  like it takes them a century to bloom, especially if you're waiting for it. Typically they'll bloom much sooner, within 20 years or so. And of course there's variation on that timeline by species. It appears - from my brief internet search - that smaller agaves tend to bloom sooner than larger ones. (Which makes sense - the larger plants spend more energy on somatic development as opposed to reproductive development.)

(Incidentally, the gardener I mentioned above refers specifically to the agave americana variety, which is the most common in the Southwest and probably what I have in my yard. Alternatively, mine might be an agave durangensis, which also appears similar to mine in the web pictures. It's hard to say though. I'm not finding any definitive information to discern the two, or any great pictures. All I can be certain of is that mine is not the striped variety of a. americana.)
one version of a. americana
a. durangensis

I've found very little to support any medicinal uses of agave, other than in the production of tequila (which really should not be ignored). There's some mention of agave sap as a disinfectant, but absolutely zero reason to suspect that's true; this is not a reference to the disinfectant properties of tequila, but a claim that the unprocessed sap has disinfectant properties. At best, I would venture that the sugar-like nature of the sap might  have similar preservative properties to other sugars.

As a representative in magical uses, I personally would consider agave an excellent guardian. The rosettes (the radially-oriented cluster of leaves) are fiercely protective of the plant, as are the stalks.  In fact, if you don't handle the dried stalks properly they'll get ya. The plant as a whole makes me think of fire: abundant in it's usefulness, but inherently dangerous and requiring mindful handling.

If you decide to work with the dried stalks, wear gloves. The fibers of the stalks are quite pokey, and they are so fine that it's nearly impossible to see them once they've embedded themselves in your flesh. They make wicked, hair-like splinters. There's one under my fingernail right now that's still working it's way out. I can tell it's still there, because the dried blood around it is still there. Also, it hurts. So wear gloves, and sand that thing down with a very fine grit sand paper. That'll make it better, but it's probably next to impossible to get all the fibers smoothed out, so I also recommend giving your agave stalk some sort of wrap where you plan to grasp it. I have both a wand and a staff made from agave stalks (wild harvested, not from Stabby). They came to me through my ten year old son, who collected them and brought them home as gifts. I used rabbit fur on my staff, but I don't hold it a lot. Leather would probably be better for something you're going to use often. Or any fabric thick enough to tame stray fibers and keep them out of your skin.

This staff is ridiculously tall, and I'll probably end up shortening it a bit. If I do, I'll take some off the top. I really like how the bottom 'bulbs' out and makes a solid base for the whole thing. It's good for grounding.


By the way, yuccas are part of the agave family, too, but they're a different genus. I'll talk about yuccas separately, and later.

Also, I'm in the market for a good southwest herbalism book. Comment with leads if you have any please!

References Gardening Gone Wild (blog) by Debra Lee Baldwin, "Uh-oh. My agave's blooming." Appears to have been posted in 2009, but I can't actually find a date for that post (I'm basing my estimate on the dates of the comments). Succulent Guide: Genus Agave. Lots of pictures, but no hard data. The Agave Page. Somewhat better pictures and a little more information than the Succulent Guide.

Book: Indian Uses of Desert Plants, by James W. Cornett. 2011. Nature Trails Press. It's more 'glorified pamphlet' than book, but it's a handy little thing to have. It can be found here.

For more information How to make agave nectar (a nice sugar substitute); this is not a step-by-step guide, just an overall explanation. The US Department of Agriculture weighs in with the taxonomy of agave americana. Apparently agave leaves contain potential skin irritants in their pulp.

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