Aguamiel translated from the precolumbian Nahuatl language is honey water, describing a sweet liquid secreted at the heart of the agave. It was collected and fermented into an alcoholic drink known to the Aztecs as pulque.
Pulque consumption was strictly regulated. If you were under the age of 52 you could drink two cups a day. If over 52 you could enjoy three. And if you were a priest and practiced human sacrifice for the pulque goddess Mayahuel, you could down five cups. Yet anyone found drunk on pulque was put to death. Fortunately the “civilized” Spanish conquerors made it ok to get sauced on pulque no matter what age you are.
Further north many agave species were known generally as mescal, used so extensively by certain Apaches they became known as Mescalero Apaches. They also utilized the fibers that run the length of agave leaves, a factor that distinguishes this genus of plants from the similar looking but fleshy aloes. Known as maguey (maw-gay) in central Mexico, these are considered the earliest fibers ever used in North America. Some believe they are among the first plants ever cultivated in these regions.
With so much history, agaves belong in every ethnobotanical garden. They also make first class landscape plants that are architecturally dramatic and tough as nails. But agave does not flower every year like the aloes, yuccas and gasterias. The cycle of the agave begins with an individual “mother” plant. This produces adventurous roots that spread out in all directions and produce “pups” or new shoots all around the base of the mother.
Eventually the mother will bloom with an extraordinary tall bloom spike that in some species may reach twenty feet. Sadly, she will die soon after the flowers mature and set seed. But worry not because the pups will quickly fill in the gap where she once stood. Pups make it very easy to obtain an agave by cutting them away with some root from the mother plant.
In today’s garden just a few agaves are widely available and reasonably well adapted where winters are mild. The most common in the United States is Agave americana, or the century plant, a large blue fleshed species with wicked thorns hardy to 15°F.. Erroneously named because they bloom once in a century, these plants actually flower at ten to thirty years of age depending on the climate.The variegated form of this species is far more dramatic in the landscape. Its long leaves can be more irregular and striped gold. Another, variegated form with creamy white accent is sold as Agave americana media picta. It makes a superior single specimen so its color and form are appreciated in isolation. Perhaps the most widely planted agave in moist frost-free coastal regions is Agave attenuata. Its soft tipped , succulent sea green rosettes blend nicely into more traditional landscapes. They make an outstanding container plant. When this species blooms it produces a huge pendulous spike quite similar to an elephant trunk.
The most expensive of all is Agave victoriae-reginae, which hails from a small area in Mexico where it is now considered rare and endangered. This small agave is treasured for its tight rosettes and green leaves marked by clear white striation. A mature plant may cost as much as a thousand dollars because plants grow so slowly they are expensive to produce. But younger ones are far more affordable if you have time and attention to spend. They are treasured container plants grown indoors for the winter in cold climates. This is just a glimpse into the immense world of agaves that since the Conquest have impacted cultures on every continent but the Arctic. Few plants are as well known and least recognized, however. Despite their beauty, utility and sheer grandeur, it is aguamiel, pulque, tequila and mescal that has put the agave on the map.