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Galveston Monthly

Agaves

Jul 01, 2019 02:58PM

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in succulents, both tiny and small, often called “air plants,” and large in the order of the Century Plant. Climate change and lack of sufficient rainfall in many areas, as well as a demand for less maintenance, may have contributed to this fascination.  

 Growers are also cognizant of gardeners’ attention to and consideration of the importance of employing xeriscape theories which require little or no irrigation. While planning their landscape needs, the modern gardener also seeks to install native or adapted vegetation within areas of creative loveliness that require little upkeep or constant care and tending.

  Succulents fill those requirements in many ways, and agaves have gained a status of esteem in home gardens simply because of their attractive appearance and their predictable growth habits and routine needs or lack thereof.

  Agaves are native to Mexico and the Southwestern United States and are generally listed as perennial plants as they require several years to mature and flower. Growing slowly and requiring little supplemental watering has made the agave a popular ornamental plant in hot and dry regions.  

  The agave was a major food source for native indigenous people of the southwest as most parts of the plant are edible. The leaves, shoots, and stalks can be eaten; leaves, collected in the winter; spring months are rich in sap used for cooking and drinking; while the stalks (harvested in summer) are sweet when roasted and produce a type of sugarcane. Most agaves have sharp marginal teeth and an extremely sharp spine with short, stout stems and a fibrous interior. The agave is not a cactus though both have highly specialized features like thick fleshy leaves, spines, and roots with the capability of storing food and water.

  

 A beverage can be squeezed from baked fibers, and the heads can be boiled, roasted, or baked. The heads are then pounded into flat sheets, sun-dried, and stored for future use or made into a paste for making soup. Sap collected from the base of a young flower stalk is used in cooking.

  Each plant will produce edible blooms during its final season. In some species of agave, the flower shoot may be cut out, the sap collected and fermented. By distillation, a spirit called mescal is prepared, a form of which is the drink popularly known as tequila.

  Agave Americana is a familiar type of agave that is also labeled the Century Plant referring to its long life. This species takes years to become ready for the flowering process which is dependent upon the health and vigor of the plant itself, the richness of the soil, and the climate.  

 Once flowering occurs, the Americana will die off (as do the other agaves), but the offsets at the base of the plant are easily propagated. This agave can grow to enormous proportions and is a handsome specimen plant on its own.

  Agave attenuata is a native of central Mexico and is often called the foxtail agave, popular for growth as a garden plant as it has no teeth or terminal spines and easily adapts to any setting where there may be foot traffic. As a succulent, it requires little maintenance or hydration.

  Agave tequilana, also called blue agave, is well known for its use in the production of tequila. The Mexican government has decreed that 100% blue agave tequila must be made using only agave tequilana or ‘Weber’s Blue’ agave, planted to rigorous specifications and only in certain Mexican states. 

“Bittersweet in the Spring Garden” 

  More than twenty years ago on a visit to a desert garden shop in Tuscon, Arizona, I purchased and shipped to my home a young Queen Victoria Agave. Upon receipt of this marvel, I began years of nurturing, cherishing, and fostering this curious variety of succulent. I would bask in the glory of the many compliments from visitors to my garden; it seems that everyone is as smitten by this rare beauty as much as I have been.  

 The Queen Victoria agave (Agave Victoria-reginae) is distinguished by its tight rosette shape, almost resembling an artichoke in form. The rosette is a group of numerous dark green leaves displaying distinctive white margins and stripes along the borders of the leaves. The edges of this succulent’s leaves are smooth, with none of the thorns that are a prominent feature of cacti, leading up to a single prominent spine at the top of each leaf.

  Originally from the Chihuahuan Desert region of Mexico, this variety of agave is especially prized by gardeners through the southwest United States for its charm, small size, and easy care. It thrives in full sun and amid inhospitable conditions including hot desert landscapes, but it is also hardy to ten degrees Fahrenheit. Drought tolerant, it needs a deep watering only once or twice a month in the summer months since the arrangement of the leaves help to channel water to the base of the plant which allows it to take advantage of sporadic rainfall in arid regions.

  As a grand specimen plant, the Queen Victoria agave will bring grace and interest to the landscape. This Mexican native with its royal dignity and charisma deserves a prominent location where her elegance can be admired.

  Now to my conundrum, like most agaves, the Queen Victoria will send up a flowering stalk, the “crowning” achievement of her many years of long life, sometimes after twenty years or more. This stalk can grow to fifteen feet in height and boasts creamy white blooms; the sight of the Queen Agave in full bloom is quite impressive and very dramatic.

  Unfortunately, shortly following this phenomenon, the Queen will slowly die. This is a natural process and nothing can be done to prevent her from flowering. I am saddened by her demise and unsure about replacing her beautiful simplicity, a star in my garden, with a mere understudy.

 

Sidebar

Mescal Sour

This tangy-sweet cocktail sports a fluffy foam froth from egg whites and a two-step mixing technique. The first shake, without ice, helps create the foam. Adding ice and shaking once again chills the drink and further aerates the whites.

 

1 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

1 1/2 oz. Yola Mezcal

1 oz. Amaro Montenegro

1 tsp. light agave nectar

1 large egg white

Angostura bitters and a lime twist

 

Shake the lime juice, mescal, amaro, agave and egg white in a cocktail shaker until frothy. Fill shaker with ice, cover and shake again until outside is frosty. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with the bitters and top with the lime twist.