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Economic and Cultural Significance of the Genus Agave

Agave, commonly referred to as “Century Plant” in North America and “Maguey” in Central and South America, is a genus of succulents comprised of more than 200 species (Franck 2012; Morales Areli et al. 2008). Several species are economically significant because they produce the commercial sweetener referred to as “agave nectar” or “agave syrup" which is thinner and sweeter than honey (Lopez et al. 2003). Other species are used to produce mezcals. The most popular mezcal, Tequila, is made from Agave tequilana var. azul, the "blue agave" and is a major export of Jalisco, Mexico (Dalton, 2005; Mohr 1999).  

Leaf fiber of certain species is used in the production of sisal hemp and henequen in Mexico, the West Indies and Southern Europe (Franck 2012; Morales Areli et al. 2008). Other products that have traditionally been derived from the plant include: coarse-weaving from fiber in the leaves, needles and pins from the leaf spines, tea and tincture from the leaves and the roots, and soap from the sap (Bye 1993; Miller & Taube 1993; Prescott 1843).  Agave was used extensively by Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs for religious and medicinal purposes as well as for furnishing many goods used in daily life (Bye, 1993).  The Aztecs (Mexica) considered agave and pulque (an alcoholic beverage derived from it) to be sacred (Miller and Taube 1993).

The plants were introduced to Europe in the 16th century as a result of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Another result was the development of tequila. The first tequila factory was established by Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira in 1600 (Mohr 1993), but it was not until 1758 that Jose Antonio Cuervo, began agave cultivation and became the first licensed manufacturer of tequila (Valensuela Zapata & Nabhan 2003). Spirits derived from Agave were popular throughout the colonial period and became an important source of colonial tax revenue, but they did not achieve popularity outside of Mexico until the 1980s (Dalton 2005; Valensuela Zapata & Nabhan 2003 Morh 1999).  

Agave plants became widespread outside of their native range in the 19th century when they became as popular ornamental garden plants in Europe and the United States (Morh 1999).  Agave are now cultivated in North America, South America, Africa and Europe for ornamental and commercial reasons. Commonly cultivated species include: Agave shrevi, Agave americana, Agave attenuate, and Agave tequilana (Zdeněk & Kunte 2005). 

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© Amy Chang

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