Few plants are more iconic in the southwest than
the agave. Countless species of these succulent,
spiky plants can be found in nurseries to adorn home gardens and native landscapes alike. Often misleadingly referred to as “century plants,” agaves, a member of the asparagus family, flower only once at the end of their life cycle, usually around 15-20 years. Some plants produce abundant seed, while others clone themselves by producing “pups.”
With over 200 species recognized, the beautiful fractal forms of agave are an exotic plant collector’s dream; but there are spectacular agaves right in our backyard. Our native agaves have ecological, cultural, and aesthetic value that make them deserving of our attention and care.
The local species, Palmer’s agave, Agave palmeri, and Huachuca agave, Agave parryi var. huachucensis, are both pollinated by nectar-feeding bats that migrate from Mexico to southern Arizona every summer. Three nectar-feeding species are found in the southwest, including the lesser-long nosed bat, Mexican free-tailed bat, and Mexican long-tongued bat which is an endangered species. Nature-watchers can catch a glimpse of these species by setting out hummingbird feeders in July and August evenings to feed the voracious mammals’ appetites.
Two other native agave species found in the Sonoita Creek watershed, shindagger, Agave schottii, and the sensitive species New Mexico agave, Agave neomexicana, are spring flowering species that are pollinated by bees and other insects. Travel to certain canyons in the Sky Islands and you will also see the spectacular golden flowered agave, or Agave chrysantha, with bright yellow flowers that drip with nectar that attract hummingbirds and insect pollinators.
Not only diverse and beautiful, these species have value to humans as spirit, food, medicine, and fiber that has withstood the test of time. You are likely familiar with agave spirits from tequila, produced from the blue agave, Agave tequilana, and perhaps you have even tried different smoky mezcals, produced from many different kinds of agave plants, or bacanora, the mezcal important to the northern regions of Sonora and Chihuaua produced primarily from Caribbean agave, Agave angustifolia. But have you ever tried pulque, a beer-like beverage produced from sap harvested from live agave plants? Or, did you know that cooked agave hearts are sweet like brown sugar, and that rope, and other fiber products produced from agave fibers are exceptionally strong? I could go on; the inner leaves of some agave species can even used as soap! The uses of agave species by many cultures across Central and North America are diverse and continue to this day, and so have woven themselves into regional mythology and identity.
Worldwide popularity of tequila and other agave spirits has spiked in recent decades, causing an ecological crisis for wild agave populations and the species that depend on them. As the demand for agave products grows, their value grows, and so their situation in an economically imbalanced Mexico grows more precarious. As a nation of consumers that drives these situations, it is Americans’ responsibility to educate ourselves about ecologically sound production practices that support habitat restoration initiatives for wild pollinator species and to participate in making these practices a reality for farmers and producers. Collaborations between U.S. based groups Borderlands Restoration Network, Bat Conservation International, and the Sonoran groups Naturalia and Colectivo Sonora Silvestre are working towards these goals and restoring thousands of acres of agave habitat in the U.S./Mexico Borderlands.
At the Tucson Agave Heritage Festival, held the last week in April, there are many different events you can participate in to taste, learn, and restore. One event to note is the Agave Expo at Hotel Congress, where you will be able to visit local vendors and nurseries while enjoying live music and entertainment. Enjoy agave spirit tastings and an agave plant you can take home. There will also be presentations by experts that work with agaves.
Visit the Agave Heritage Festival’s facebook page for a complete listing of events. In the meantime, keep your eye out on your hikes, drives, or bikes through the wildlands that surround us for these special and beautiful giant asparagus plants!