Agave (Century plant) - Nohia, north west Crete
West Crete Journal, August 2005

Agave (Century plant)

Origin: Central America
Agavaceae (family Agave)

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.