The Century plant occurs naturally in arid areas
of Mexico. The leaves are up to 2 metres long and 25cms wide, and have
sharp spines on the edges. The spines are curved like fishhooks and
can be more than 2cms long. The flower stalk is 6-12 metres tall, and
bears large (8-10cms) yellow-green flowers.
Century plants are often used for fencing in their natural habitat
of Mexico and Central America, and are still used in Crete to mark
land or household boundaries. A dense hedge of these spiny succulents
is impermeable to cattle and people. The plant doesn't really take
a century to bloom, but it does take 10 years or so in warm regions
and as much as 60 years in colder climates. It dies after blooming,
but produces offsets or "pups" throughout its life and these
remain to continue the lineage.
The sap of century plant is used as a diuretic and a laxative. The
juice of the leaves is applied to bruises and taken internally for
indigestion, flatulence, constipation, jaundice and dysentery. Steroid
hormone precursors are obtained from the leaves. Sisal and henequen
are fibres made from the leaves.
The flower stalk and heart of the plant are sweet and can be roasted
and eaten. The seeds are ground into flour to make bread and to use
as a thickener for soups. In Mexico, Pulque is a beer-like drink
made from the fermented sap of the plant or the closely-related Agave
salmiana. Tequila is distilled from the sap of blue agave (A.
tequilana), and mescal is made by distilling fire-roasted agave. Mescal,
with its distinctive smoky aroma, is often sold with a worm (actually
the caterpillar of the agave moth) in the bottle.