|Bloom stalk emerging from Agave americana|
But back to my friend, the big agave whose bloom stalk I noticed just the other day. This huge stalk, looking for all the world like an asparagus spear on steroids, will grow at an amazing rate, eventually reaching 30' or more. Small branches will emerge from the main stalk, bearing multiple buds that will open into bright yellow flowers. Bees, bats, woodpeckers and many others will seek out the sweet nectar. The blooms of the agaves are of particular importance to some species of nectar-feeding bats who rely on the sugar source for their migration energy.
Native only to the Americas, agaves have been grown in this valley and Mexico for thousands of years by native peoples who prized the many gifts the agave had to offer. Most of you are familiar with the famous agave product - tequila. A drink distilled from the juices of the heart, the name tequila can only be used to refer to the product of the blue agave, and which is made in the state of Jalisco (and a few surrounding areas) in Mexico. Made with any other agave, or in a different area, and the drink must be called mezcal. A type of fermented 'beer' can also be produced and is called pulque.
But, in addition to the liquor, agaves have much more to offer. The dried leaves are separated into fibers and used to make rope, brooms, baskets and other woven products. The heart, similar to that of an artichoke, can be roasted and eaten, or the juice extracted to make agave nectar (miel). Today agave nectar is commercially available and is used as a syrup or honey substitute. The spent, dried bloom stalks are sturdy and used for constructing ramadas or other structures.
Medicinal uses, too, are important. According to Mark Dimmit of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, "The complex chemicals in this family have many uses. Compresses for wounds have been made from macerated agave pulp, and juices from leaves and roots were used in tonics. But beware-sap from many agaves can cause severe dermatitis. The juice of the more virulent agaves has been used as fish poison and arrow poison. Agaves and yuccas are used in Mexico to make soap. More recently steroid drugs have been synthesized from extracts of several species in the family."
Bloom types fall into two categories - an unbranched spike (spicate) or branched (paniculate). Some of the spicate produce small plantlets (clones) along the stalk that can be removed and planted. At the moment, I have some of each type preparing to bloom in my yard.