Agave americana L.


Liliaceae (Lily Family)


Tropical America


Century Plant


American Agave  

                               June Photo


Plant Characteristics:  Stemless perennial from a thick fibrous-rooted crown; lvs. fleshy, persistent, in a basal rosette, 1.5-2.5 m. long, gray-green and somewhat glaucous; terminal spine 2-3.5 cm. long; lateral teeth 5-8 mm. long, 1.5-6 cm. apart; flowering stalks to 12 m. tall, broadly paniculate-branched in upper part; fls. yellow, tinged green, 5-6 cm. long, numerous; caps. 4.5-6 cm. long.


Habitat:  Planted as an ornamental and establishing itself on dumps and in waste places.


Name:  Greek, agave, noble or admirable.  (Munz, Flora So. Calif. 864).  Americana refers to the place where the plant was first found.


General:  Rare in the study area having been found in only one place and this on the bluffs between 23rd St. and the Delhi Ditch area. (my comment).     A genus of perhaps 300 spp. from warmer parts of W. Hemis.; many of horticultural importance, producing various fibers such as sisal and henequen.  The young fl.-stalks yield a liquid which is fermented for drinks like pulque and distilled for tequila.  (Munz, Flora So. Calif. 864).     The century plant is at the center of the economy of the Mexican country dweller.  It furnishes him with shelter, food, drink and soap, as well as the raw materials for fiber.  It is from A. americana and some of the many other species that pulque, tequila and mescal are made.  Medicinally, the juice of the agaves has been used as a diuretic and especially as an anti-syphilitic.  The plant is grown as a money crop in vast plantations.  It was a popular tubbed plant a half century ago.  (Coon 65).     A. deserti was widely used by desert Indian tribes.  Young flowering stalks were dug out of the basal leaf cluster with digging sticks and roasted for several days in earth pit ovens for a sweet-tasting starchy food which was eaten fresh or dried for future use as an important barter item.  (Clarke 99).      Fibre was extracted from the dead leaves of yucca spp. by beating and from fresh leaves by soaking and rotting off the pulp and outer skin.  String from the fibre was made by the women by rolling on the bare thigh.  (Balls 19).    The infl. is produced at the maturity of the plant, at 10 years or more, where upon the plant dies but usually leaves suckers about the base.  Called Century Plant from the erroneous notion that it blooms only when 100 years old.  (Bailey 239).      Agave fibers made a course, stiff string.  Sometimes the sharp spine at the tip of the agave leaf was left on a string of agave fiber to make a perfect needle and thread.  (Bauer 76).      A. americana has been known to cause a burning rash and itching welts.  Hemorrhagic dermatitis appeared several hours after the juice from an agave splattered on those who cut the plant with a power saw.  Plants of this species have been suspected of poisoning stock in the field.  (Fuller 265).       Constant use of the root for arthritis may interfere with some intestinal absorption; so don't use for more than a week at a time.  The fresh tincture may be irritating to the skin and mouth of a few individuals; so if in doubt, put some on the inner wrist.  If it inflames, don't use it; use the dry leaf instead, for tea.  (Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West 12).    Several California Indian tribes including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Yokut and Eastern Mono used carrying nets to transport all manner of goods.  The net functioned, in effect as an extremely efficient backpack supported by a tumpline across the forehead.  The nets were made of cordage from Phragmites communis, Agave whipplei and other plants. The nets were knotted and the Indian tribes knew a number of netting knots.  The most common may have been the sheet bend or mesh knot.  (Campbell 173).       The new Jepson Manual has placed Agavaceae within Liliaceae.  (Hickman, Ed. 1170).         Comparison of the DNA sequences for various genes, usually those found in the chloroplast of the plant cell has led biologists to propose many changes in the plant families as they are now known.  It is proposed to move the genus Agave from Liliaceae back to Agavaceae.  (Kelch, Dean G. “Consider the Lilies” FREMONTIA, A Journal of the California Native Plant Society Vol. 30 No. 2 April 2002 pp. 23-29).


Text Ref:  Hickman, Ed. 1170; Munz, Flora So. Calif. 864; Roberts 41.

Photo Ref:  Jan 2 84 # 19; June-July 93 # 5.

Identity: by R. De Ruff, confirmed by F. Roberts.

First Found:  January 1984.

Computer Ref:  Plant Data 115.

No plant specimen.

Last edit 5/27/04.


                                          January Photo