Gardening: The intoxicating century plant
The century plant (agave Americana) is native to Mexico but is now found worldwide. The large gray-green leaves are up to six feet long with prickly spines along the edges and a large spike at the top.
Care should be taken when working around this spiny plant. In spite of the spines it is a great specimen for large areas.
The name century plant comes from the fact that it only flowers occasionally, averaging every 20 years or so. When it does flower, it is a spectacular site as a spike with flowers can reach up to 25 feet in height. Each of these flowers will develop into a tiny century plant and if allowed to fall to the ground will root and begin growing to produce more century plants than you would want in your yard. After the plant flowers it dies. However, century plants produce suckers or shoots from the base and these will take over to continue the plant’s life.
Many different cultivars have been developed including the ‘Marginata’ with yellow stripes along the leaf margins, ‘Mediopicta’ with a central white stripe, ‘Striata’ with multiple yellow to white stripes and ‘Variegata’ with white edges on the leaves.
The Mexicans use the century plant in many ways. If you cut the flower stem before it produces flowers it will produce a sweet liquid called agua miel or honey water which puddles in the heart of the plant. They will scrape the heart clean and remove several of the central stems to make this area into a large bowl to hold more agua miel. Then they will cover the area with a leaf to preserve this sweet liquid as they process it into a fermented drink called pulque. To make pulque, you rub inside of a pot with alcohol and burn wood with cinnamon and sugar to give the pot a smoke flavor for about fifteen minutes. You remove the wood, etc. and add the agua miel to the pot. The pot is then buried into the ground and surrounded with sand and water to keep the agua miel fresh for three days.
The pulque will be strong and so they will go back for more agua miel from the century plant to dilute the pulque to the desired taste. This in turn can be further distilled to produce mezcal, a potent alcoholic drink. Tequila is made from a different species, Agave Tequilana.
They will also use these large leaves to line pots for cooking meats. The leaves are softened on a fire to make them flexible and then they will line a pot with them to surround the meat for cooking. Seasoning is added to taste and the meat is cooked for three to four hours. This will produce a very tender and moist meat.
And finally these large leaves have fibers known as pita which the Mexicans use to make rope, mats and a coarse cloth. What a great thing that a dying plant is used in so many ways.
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Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413.
U of F: Planting and care
- This highly drought-tolerant and moderately salt-tolerant plant grows well in zones 9 – 11.
- Agave plants are easy to grow, but they do have a few "needs" to thrive. They need at least six hours of direct sun and well-drained soils.
- Planting in well-drained soil is particularly important in preventing root rot, especially in North Florida where cooler winter temperatures may add stress to your plant. If your in-ground conditions are not ideal for growing century plant, try growing it in a container where you can control the soil conditions.
- Century plants can get quite large; the smaller spineless century plant is a better choice for growing in a container.
- Once your plant has matured you may notice multiple "pups" around the base of the mature parent plant. After the parent plant has died you can remove and transplant the pups and start the growing adventure over again.