Nature Notes: Agave

BY JAMES SAUNDERS

Humans made the Chihuahuan Desert Region their home for thousands of years before the Europeans discovered the New World. These early inhabitants were able to live in our harsh conditions because they used desert plants as a source of food, fiber, medicine and building material. Plants of the Agavaceae family—the sotols, agaves, and yuccas—were especially useful to these original inhabitants. 

Standing up to six feet tall with a flowering stalk that can reach 20 feet, the maguey is one of our largest agaves. Also called a century plant, it was used by natives as a source of aquamiel, a nutritious drink. To harvest aquamiel, the leaf bud from the center of the plant is cut out, forming a basin.

Sap pools into this basin, producing enough liquid for about a drink a day. Aquamiel contains calcium, phosphorous, vitamins, and amino acids and tastes very sweet. In an arid environment, aquamiel can be a life-saving source of water and nutrients. Other species of agave were also used to produce aquamiel. 

Aquamiel was fermented by the Native Americans to produce pulque, an alcoholic beverage used in religious ceremonies. Today, pulque can be purchased in pulquerias in Mexico. After the Spanish introduced distillation techniques, the juices from various agaves began to be used to produce mezcal. Juice from the blue agave is fermented and distilled to produce Tequila.

The flowering stalks and hearts of various agave species were an important food source to the Mescalero and Lipan Apache Indians. Because of caustic compounds in the plant, it had to be carefully prepared and cooked before eating.

The flowering stalks of the larger agaves were also used as building material or firewood. The smallest of the agaves, the toxic lecheguilla plant, was also used by the Indians. Poisonous juice extracted from the plant by pounding the leaves was used to tip arrows. Fiber extracted from the leaves was used to make bowstrings, mats, baskets, sandals and rough cloth. Rural Mexicans today harvest lecheguilla fiber to make rope and twine.

Native Americans also relied on the sotol plants for food and fiber. Sotol hearts were roasted in underground pits. After removing the short spines that grow along the leaf edges, the long skinny sotol leaves were used to weave baskets. Leaf fiber was used to make sandals and rope. 

The white flowers of the yuccas are edible raw or cooked, and are high in vitamin C. Natives cooked the young flowering stalks of the soap tree yucca, peeled off the bark, and ate the soft interior. Some species of yucca produce a fleshy fruit, which is also edible. 

Yucca root is high in a chemical called saponin, making it a useful substitute for soap. The root was pounded and vigorously mixed with water, producing a sudsy lather. Native Americans used this soap for bathing and in ceremonial cleansings after battle.

Today we often forget that people once survived in the harsh Chihuahuan Desert climate using traditional techniques and living off the land. We can learn a lot from these original inhabitants.

Nature Notes presents natural wonders of the Chihuahuan Desert in this column every other week. Nature Notes is produced by the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Marfa Public Radio and is sponsored by the Meadows Foundation and the Dixon Water Foundation. Tune in to Nature Notes on KRTS-93.5 FM on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:35 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. and again on Thursdays at 7:06 p.m.