Why They Say “Agave is Life”

January 22, 2016

John Losse
by John Losse

Wendy Hodgson, a botanist from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, spoke about the amazing agave plant at the January meeting of the Sedona Westerners. Hodgson is an expert on the agave and is especially interested in its connection to the ancient cultures of Arizona. She has authored many publications, including Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert, which won the 2002 Klinger Book Award.

Folding Agave
Wendy Hodgson pressing cacti for identification uses. As a botanist from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Hodgson spoke about agave and its role in pre-Columbian cultures of the Sonoran Desert and surrounding regions.

Hodgson stated that there are hundreds of varieties of agave. Only one of them has to do with tequila, and it doesn't grow around here. Agave's importance to the people who lived here before us comes from its many other uses. The agave heart can be baked for food, its sap is a sweet nectar, the fibers can be woven, the leaves can be used to line baking pits, and their nasty points can be used as needles and awls.

Certain varieties of agave were so preferred by ancient people that they were domesticated and cultivated like other crops. These varieties were selected Hodgson feels, because of their sweetness, the quality of the fiber, their time of flowering and harvest, and the ease with which the leaves could be separated from the core of the plant. Removing the leaves is difficult, and very sharp rocks were needed. Of the six varieties known to be domesticated in Arizona, four are found in our own Verde Valley.

Another characteristic of the cultivated varieties is that they tend to reproduce asexually, instead of via pollinated seeds, Hodgson explained. We see this in the small “pups” that are often found in a ring a couple of feet from a mature or dying plant. These pups have a root-like umbilical cord back to the main plant, and are genetically identical to it. This means that a plant with desirable traits would have descendants with the same traits, which is not always the way it goes with corn or humans.

Until recently, it was thought that only in Mesoamerica (think Mexico) was agave actually cultivated in pre-Columbian times, but now it is believed that agave from Mesoamerica was traded all the way north to the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, a variety of agave near Sacred Mountain in the Verde Valley is found nowhere else. Hodgson feels it may have been so prized by the local people that they did not trade it away.

Evidence of agave use goes back 10,000 - 11,000 years, Hodgson said. A proof of its importance is the fact that the people were willing to dig enormous roasting pits, tending them for up to four days for large plants, before they could be eaten or dried for future use. Dried agave could be stored for years, an important hedge against drought. There is a saying among native peoples of the Southwest that “agave is life”.

In some parts of Arizona and the Southwest today, there are places where domesticated agave are found without evidence of nearby human habitation. This has led Wendy Hodgson and others to the intriguing idea that these areas may deserve more attention by archeologists. In other words, agave might show the way to learning more about the past.


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