Agave looks somewhat like a cactus, but is actually a succulent plant related to lilies that reproduces by shoots. There are around 135 different identified varieties in Mexico.
The Agave crops are cultivated in fields and don’t need to be irrigated: watering them would produce larger plants, but not a higher overall sugar content in them. They do, however, need good weed control.
The part used for juice and making alcohol is the heart of the plant, called the “piña.” It starts underground but grows upward and looks like a big pineapple. It usually weighs 80 to 200 pounds (36 to 90 kg), but can weigh up to 300 pounds (135 kg.) If allowed to keep on growing, the piña would eventually produce a very tall flower stalk.
When the flower stalk is young, it can be roasted or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. As such, its called “quiote” or “quixotl.” On Agave which are being grown for their piñas, the stalk isn’t allowed to grow. It is cut back so that the piña will grow fatter. The labourers who trim the flower stalks off are called “picadores.” They look for plants, generally between 8 and 12 years old, whose piña top looks like it is ready to bud. The bud is cut off, “castrating” the plant. Without the development of the flower stalk, the carbohydrates in the piña build up. Otherwise, after blossoming and producing seeds, the whole plant would then die.
The piñas are ready to harvest when they take on a maroon hue. At this point they are rich in carbohydrates. To harvest them, the piña is cut off at its bottom, then the leaves are hacked off. They will look like giant green pineapples. The plant is now dead, and new ones need to be planted.
Agave can be used for its fibre, for its juice or as animal feed. Baked piñas can be eaten, though some varieties are unpalatable.
Sisal fibre comes from the leaves of a particular variety called Agave Sisalana. The fibre is separated from the pulp, dried in the sun, and then used. It came to be called Sisal because it was exported primarily out of the port called “Sisal” in the Yucatan peninsula.
“Agave Tequilana Weber” is more popularly known as “Blue Agave” or “Agave Azul.”
Indians saw Agave as a plant given to them by the gods, because of the many different uses it could be put to.
Nahuatl called Agave “metl” or “mexcametl.”