At the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens, stand the remains of what is believed to be the oldest American agave plant. The agave plant is perhaps best known for being the source of the much loved Mexican drink, tequila. Tequila is however derived from the agave plant. According to Brady Bunte, other types of agave can also be found in certain parts of Mexico and is used in the production of the less popular mezcal called pulque.
In order for this drink to be made, the flower stalk to the agave must be cut just before flowering. This is when the plant directs as much moisture and sugar towards where the stalk would have grown out for flowering. This surge of sweet liquid, called aguamiel, collects at the base of the stalk. When harvested and fermented, the drink turns into pulque. Brady Bunte confirms that this drink dates back to before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. It was a sacred drink of the Aztecs and was consumed during rituals to their gods.
Brady Bunte believes that what makes this story so interesting is that under normal circumstances, the American agave plant should mature, flower and die within a 10-25 year period. The University of Michigan American agave however managed an amazing feat by making it to the 80-year mark before flowering.
When the flowering stage was arrived at, Brady Bunte reports that the plant recorded impressive growth spurts from its stalk. Its caretakers noted May last year as being particularly impressive, as the plant would grow as much as 6 inches in a day. This sustained and remarkable gain forced them to take out a pane over the plant to allow it to grow past the conservatory’s ceiling. It is not known what specific environmental factors may have come into play to induce this flowering to take place, although the horticultural manager of the garden believes that being in a conservatory may have played a role in prolonging the life of the plant.
Ordinarily agave plants, once flowered and dying, produce hundreds of seeds so that a few may hopefully survive and see to the continuation of the species. This poor survival rate is attributed to the normally harsh conditions under which the American agave plant grows. According to Brady Bunte, the plants are typically found in desert like areas.
The horticultural manager of the garden stated that the seeds from the pods would be used to create new agave that would however be slightly different. Brady Bunte believes that these seeds will likely give life to new plants with just as long a life cycle as their now deceased parent, if not longer. This means that for many of us reading right now, it is unlikely that we will see the flowering of these plants in our lifetime. It is estimated that this particular plant may have left behind thousands of seeds and plantlets, which the scientists can work on to bring the next generation into being.
Now that the flowering stage is over, the agave plant is dying and Brady Bunte expects it will be removed from the garden this month. Although part of the asparagus family, do not expect to see this plant at your grocery store anytime soon. Brady Bunte however believes that the long yellow edged leaves of the plant may be productively used in rope making. The fibers collected from within the leaves are very strong and were often harvested by indigenous people, including American Indians, to make twine. The agave fibers have also found use in making of carpets, wall coverings, yarns, washcloths and belts.