Agave tequilana is a ferocious beauty of the succulent world. It has glaucous, sword-like foliage edged with vicious teeth. The rigid, lanceolate leaves are held erect. They emerge from a central rosette and grow up to two metres long. The inflorescence is even more impressive - a panicle growing up to six metres tall and carrying many clusters of very small, green flowers.
Agave tequilana is chiropterophilous, meaning it is bat pollinated and is monocarpic; once it has flowered the plant dies. All is not lost though as in addition to producing large quantities of seed, each plant will have also produced suckers before it has flowered.
Agave tequilana naturally occurs in western Mexico at altitudes above 1500 metres. Requiring full-sun, it grows in fertile, sandy soils and has adapted well to cultivation around the world.
As its species epithet suggests it is from this plant that the main ingredient for the alcoholic drink tequila comes. Vast quantities of sugary sap accumulate in the stem before flowering. By removing the developing flower spike and leaves, the heart of the plant can be harvested. The heart is heated to remove the sap, which is used in the fermentation or distillation process. It is also used in the production of the drinks pulque and mescal.
Agaves are in sub-family Agavoideae of the Asparagaceae. There are more than 550 species of agave and in the Americas many have been used as sources of food and alcohol for millennia. Agave sap is used as syrup. However if consumed in large amounts it has the potential to lead to insulin resistance because of its high fructose levels. The base of the stem can be cooked and eaten like a huge artichoke heart. The flowers too are edible. In pre-Columbian Mexico, Polianthes tuberosa (formerly in the genus Agave) was added to chocolate as a flavouring by the Olmec civilization.
The fibres from the leaves have been used for weaving textiles to make skirts, mats, rope and baskets. The wax extracted from some species of agave is used as soap and for washing clothes. Other uses for agave have been as diverse as brushes, essential oil and even shoe polish.
To cultivate agaves year-round in the UK requires a frost-free conservatory to avoid the worst of the winter wet. Like many species of agave, Agave tequilana makes a stunning architectural addition to any exotic planting in the garden.
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