The century plant, or Agave americana is an exceptionally fleshy plant that has its origin in Mexico. This species comprises large plants having wobbly and open rosettes without trunks. Century plant bears long leaves growing up to 6 feet (2 meters) in length and having a grey-green hue. The leaves are about 10 inches (25 cm) in width having hooked spikes on the periphery. Even the leaf tips have an extremely pointed spine that may be about 2 inches (5 cm) in length. The plant derived its name century plant since it was thought that these plants blossomed once in a hundred years. However, this is not true and in reality, majority of the plants will bloom once in every 10 to 30 years - much less than a century. The flower stalk, which is 20 to 40 feet tall, is branched and bears big yellowish-green flowers that are three to four inches in diameter. The most preferred cultivars of this species include ‘Marginata', which bears leaves with yellow margins, ‘Mediopicta' having wide yellowish band down the middle of every leaf, and ‘Striata', having striped leaves.
Leaves in the multi-colored variations have a white or yellow stripe at the periphery or in the middle. When the leaves of century plant open up from the middle of the rosette, the mark of the peripheral spikes becomes noticeable on the tender leaves which are still straight. It is important to note that frost protection is essential for the plants of these species. Moreover, the century plant mature little by little and expire soon after blossoming. However, this plant can be propagated without much difficulty by means of the outgrowths at the base of the stem.
Blue Agave americana, a variety of the century plant, is found growing in plenty in the Karoo as well as the dry upland areas of South Africa. This species was actually introduced by the British settlers in these regions way back in 1820 and was initially grown as well as utilized as a crisis food for livestock. Presently, the plant is cultivated and mainly used to produce sugar and syrup.
The Native Americans cultivated the century plant for several hundred years for its fibers as well as used it as a food and drink. After the Portuguese and Spaniards brought the agave plants from the Americas to Europe in the 17th century, it turned out to be a very popular garden plant in the Mediterranean region. In fact, syrups or nectar prepared from the agave plants were available in the health food stores in Europe in the early 2000s and they are becoming increasingly popular as more and more consumers identify the excellent flavor of this natural sweetener. Contemporary herbalists also recommend using this plant in moderation because the syrup prepared with agave plant contains plenty of calories. In effect, the stevia plant, which does not contain any calorie, is a substitute for the high calorie sugars.
Juice, sap, leaves.
Century plant yields a sap that is employed medicinally as a laxative and a diuretic. The juice extracted from the leaves of the plant is applied externally on bruises and is also ingested for treating a number of problems related to the gastric tract, including constipation, flatulence, indigestion and dysentery. In addition, the juice of the leaves is also said to be an effective remedy for jaundice. Precursors of steroid hormones are also derived from the century plant leaves.
Apart from its use for medicinal purposes, the flower stalk as well as the heart of Agave americana possess a sweet flavor and can be eaten after roasting them. The seeds of this plant are pulverized to produce a type of flour which is used to make bread. In addition, the seed powder is also used as a thickener while preparing soups. When the sap of Agave americana or century plant is fermented it produces ‘pulque' a drink similar to beer. Even the sap of Agave salmiana, a close relative of century plant, can be brewed to prepare an intoxicating drink. In addition tequila is prepared by distilling the sap yielded by blue agave (botanical name, Agave tequilana), while mescal is prepared by distilling agave after roasting it over fire. Interestingly, mescal having a characteristic smoky fragrance is generally sold along with a worm in the bottle. This worm is actually the caterpillar of the agave moth.
Fibrous strings, such as sisal and henequen, are made using the leaves of Agave sisalana and Agave fourcroydes.
When the flowering stem of century plant is cut before it bears flowers, it yields a sweet liquid known as agua miel, also known as ‘honey water'. This liquid collects in the heart of the century plant and can be fermented to make a drink known as ‘pulque'. As mentioned earlier, the leaves of this plant produces fibers, which are called ‘pita' and are apt for making rope, coarse cloth, mats as well as used in leather embroidery in a process called ‘piteado'. During the days of pre-Columbian Mexico, the maguey fiber as well as pulque was important for the economy of the region.
It may be noted that tequila and mezcal are not like pulque, as they are refined using spirits. In Tequila, located close to the western Mexican city Jalisco, agaves are known as mescals, while their distilled product containing high concentration of alcohol is known as mezcal. Precisely speaking, tequila is prepared from the century plant variety called Agave tequilana, commonly known as the ‘blue agave'. While mezcal is likely to contain the mezcal worm, this is not the case with tequila and pulque.
Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, is sold as a substitute for natural sugar and possesses a low glycemic index or GI (a guide indicating the impact of a variety of foods on blood sugar), as it has a rich fructose content.
The sap exuded by century plant is somewhat acidic and it may often prove to be rather agonizing and form small blisters if it comes in direct contact with the skin.
In Mexico as well as Central America people often use the century plant as fencing. The dense hedgerow formed by the plants having long spiky succulent leaves is really impervious to people as well as cattle. Many people use the century plants as ornamental plants and often grow them on rock gardens, in boundaries, in the Mediterranean-style topography, in succulent and cactus gardens as well as a sampling. It may be noted that this plant has a tendency to dominate the land where it is grown and often affect the growth of other plants in the area. Sometimes people also grow century plants indoors in containers and these plants are much smaller compared to their counterparts grown outdoors. If you are growing the plant in a pot, it is advisable to put the plant in an area that is cool and frost-free during the winter months, while you may place them outside on the balcony or patio during the summer months.
Habitat and cultivation
The century plant is found growing naturally and in plenty in the dry regions of Mexico. The plant is also found growing in the wild in the Mediterranean region of Europe and Africa.
Contrary to the common belief which gave the plant its name, century plant or Agave americana actually does not bloom once in a 100 years. However, when grown in warm regions, this species may take as long as 10 years to produce its flowers, while the period may extend to even 60 years if the plant is being cultivated in colder climatic conditions. Interestingly enough, the plant expires soon after flowering - a condition known as monocarpic. However, the plant keeps reproducing by means of its offsets, also called ‘pups', at the base of the stem all through its life and these plants keep the family on. The number of years taken by a plant to bloom is actually dependent on a number of factors, such as the fertility of the soil, the vitality of the individual plant and climatic conditions. During these years before the plant bears flowers, the plant continues to store nourishing substances in its succulent leaves for the endeavour required by it to flower.
Century plant requires total sunlight and a well drained mixed soil for it to flourish. When grown in the greenhouse, it is advisable to use a mixed soil comprising equal amounts of loam and sand. Agave americana plants have the aptitude to resist drought. Water the plants of this species only after they have dried following the previous watering. These plants require being fertilized using a balanced fertilizer only once during the growing season. The plants ought to be watered just enough during the winter months so that their leaves do not wither. As discussed earlier, century plant is propagated by its suckers that are generally found growing at the base of the plant. Alternately, they can also be propagated by their seeds.
Chemical analysis of the Agave americana or the century plant has revealed that the plant encloses fructans and saponins. In effect, inulin is a form of fructan that offers several health benefits. The plant's roots enclose saponins, ginseng being the most familiar among them.