Agave species of cacti dot desert with their prickly beauty

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  • Post last modified:February 10, 2012
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Christmas usually finds me heading out of town to some warm water destination where the waves are good, the water is clear and wetsuits are optional. Fortunately for us, Encinitas is only a two-hour flight away from Cabo San Lucas and an hour and a half drive to Cerritos Beach. One of the prettiest point breaks this side of Swamis. It lays ten minutes south of Todos Santos, an artist colony slash agricultural town known for its’ world famous Hotel California.

Peppering the hills and dry washes around this area one can’t help but see thousands of Saguaro Cacti. I love these giants and they are protected in Mexico just as they are in Arizona. I have only seen a few of these in Encinitas; they have an amazing woody skeletal structure underneath their soft fleshy exterior that is almost alien like in nature.

When the succulent portion of the tree is removed through boiling or drying, the exposed internal structure is a perforated, limb like skeleton that resembles some in determinant animal. I have even seen this structure displayed as lamps or on the walls of a major curio shop in Sedona, Arizona.

Mexico has so many other plants that are also common to our area. The Blue Agave Americana is one of my favorites. This plant and many other similar Agave species have a multitude of uses. The fiber from the Sisal Agave is used in the manufacture of rope, twine, paper, carpet and even dart boards. The Brazilians accelerated production in the 1960’s and created an industry based on spinning mills and fiber production. Although this is a sustainable resource, there is much to be said about the positive and negative effects of Sisal growing.

Many of these Sisal Agaves found in Encinitas sport a unique flower stalk from their centers, which is the harbinger of plant death for the Agave because it is a Monocarpic plant. (Monocarpic plants flower once in their lives and then die.) However they are also a beautiful site to behold in full bloom and as this peculiar plant reaches the end of its’ life span it shoots a 30 ft. stalk high into the air with brilliant white flowers.

One trick that many Agave growers will employ to prolong the life of their plants is to remove the flower stalk from the center of the plant before seed production can begin. It is this seed production controlled by hormones within the Agave that ultimately shuts down its’ root production and growth. These chemicals then redirect the plants energies into the reproduction of a new mother plant through seed production.

The Blue Agave is grown commercially in Jalisco, Mexico and loves the higher elevation of 1500 meters above sea level. Known commonly as the century plant, this Agave lives approximately ten to thirty years and makes for one of the most strikingly attractive and sculptural plants you can use in a landscape. It cannot tolerate wet soils, poor drainage or temperatures below freezing for very long and is one of the lowest maintenance plants you can find.

I love to plant the Blue Agave on a hill, in groups to make a big visual statement and to keep it out of the way from pedestrian traffic. This Agave has incredibly hard and vicious spines at the tips of its’ leaves and its’ milky white sap can cause severe itching and burning if applied to bare skin. Quick rinsing and washing away with soap and water is the only remedy.

Tequila is one of the world’s favorite alcoholic beverages and comes specifically from the Blue Agave. The leaves are cut off the main trunk leaving only a 200 to 300 pound pineapple that is harvested and then cooked under steam pressure or flame in underground ovens to achieve a smokey flavor. It is then processed or mashed into a paste to remove the clear juice called aguamiel (honey water). This juice is then fermented and used in a double distillation process that produces todays Silver or Blanco Tequilas.

Mescal and Pulque are tequila’s near cousins and are made from a mix of different Agave Plants incorporating the introduction of caramel coloring and sugar.