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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Agave parryi, Parry’s agave, range map. Agave parryi range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

A Parry’s agave flower cluster. A Parry’s agave flower cluster. Nectar-feeding bats are the main pollinators. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Parry’s agave flower stalk. Looking up at a Parry’s agave flower stalk. The stalks are up to 20 feet tall and developed at a rate of up to 4 inches a day. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

A cluster of three Parry’s agave plants. A cluster of three Parry’s agave plants. These plants are probably offshoots from a parent that flowered and died many years ago. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Parry’s agaves flowering in an oak-juniper woodland. Parry’s agaves flowering in an oak-juniper woodland on the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi)

By Charlie McDonald

You have to be impressed when you see a stand of flowering Parry’s agaves for the first time. Each flowering plant has a giant stalk up to 20 feet tall with 20 to 30 side branches and each side branch with hundreds of flowers. The flowers are reddish in bud and bright yellow when open. Just magnificent!

Beyond sheer beauty, agaves grow in an interesting way. Often called century plants, agaves live many years before flowering, after which they die. Actually, agaves usually live 10 to 30 years before flowering. Most agaves make “pups” or vegetative offshoots that replace the parent plant after it dies.

Agaves have been a source of human food and beverage for at least 9,000 years. When an agave’s central bud is removed, the cavity fills with fluid. This nutritious juice is called aguamiel (honey water in English). When aguamiel is allowed to ferment it becomes an alcoholic beverage called pulque and when pulque is distilled it becomes mescal. Tequila is a high quality mescal produced only from the blue agave plant and grown only in limited regions of Mexico.

Sugars concentrate in the core of an agave just before flowering. If the leaves are trimmed away, the core can be baked or roasted. Native Americans of many Southwestern tribes pit-roasted agaves in an elaborate process that took three or four days of cooking. The sweet meat is said to have a flavor of sweet potato, molasses, and pineapple, but is quite fibrous. Chunks of roasted agave were chewed and the tough fibers discarded. Roasted agave could also be pounded into cakes and dried for later use.

Agave leaves have strong fibers good for many uses. Sisal fiber derived from Agave sisalana is grown worldwide and used for inexpensive twine, rope, paper, fabric, filters, mattresses, and carpets.

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