Agaves or magueys, plants of infinite uses for wonderful things

The magueys or agaves trees can produce many human satisfiers such as honey, fiber, fuels, fodder, construction materials, and medicinal products.

Agaves or magueys, plants of infinite uses for wonderful things
The agaves or magueys belong to the botanical family of the Asparagaceae. The stem is very short and thick, not visible to the naked eye because the leaves cover it completely. Image: Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development

Today, as centuries ago, magueys or agaves with their imposing sizes and extravagant shapes characterize the landscapes of the arid and semi-arid zones of Mexico and contribute to the conservation and retention of the soil; in some regions, they are cultivated delimiting borders or terraces to avoid erosion and landslides. Their cultivation makes it possible to increase agricultural productivity in cold and hot areas.

"They are very grateful", farmers say when talking about them, "they grow wherever you plant them, even if they are already withered". Magueys reproduce mainly by the offspring that develop in the stem of the mother plant, or by the seeds produced by flowering, which occurs only once in the life of maguey and is the irremediable announcement of its death.

Mexico is the center of origin of the Agavaceae family, to which eight genera belong, including the genus Agave. Of the 273 described species of this family distributed throughout the American continent - from North Dakota, EVA, to Bolivia and Paraguay - Mexico has the greatest diversity with 205 species, of which 151 are endemic. The states with the highest number of species are Oaxaca, Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, Durango and Jalisco.

The use of agaves dates back to pre-Columbian times when the indigenous peoples found in this marvelous plant a source of raw material for making hundreds of products. From the stalks they obtained threads to weave sacks, mats, backpacks, belts, fishing nets, and cords; the stalks were used to roof houses as a roof, the dried quiotes (flower stalk that reaches more than three meters) were used as beams and as fences to delimit land; the barbs or thorns were used as nails and needles; the roots were used to make brushes, brooms, and baskets; from the juice of the maguey, in addition to honey, the ritual drink par excellence was obtained: Pulque. However, of this multiplicity of uses, only a few have prevailed and have been transformed throughout history.

The tree of wonders is the maguey, of which the new or chapetones (as they are called in the Indies), usually write miracles, that it gives water and wine, and oil and vinegar, and honey, and syrup and thread, and needle and a hundred other things", thus wrote the Jesuit José de Acosta in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies.

The golden age of henequen

Native to the Yucatan Peninsula, henequen (Agave fourcroydes) is known in many countries for its fiber. The ancient Maya were the first to use this species, using its fibers as ropes to bind house beams together, to prepare traps for hunting, and to weave hammocks or nets. But it was not until the 19th century that its exploitation acquired great importance and the first shredding machines were installed to produce large-scale cordelí for ships.

The transcendental period of the henequen industry took place during the Porfiriato. The agave plantations covered enormous areas of the haciendas, tended by the labor of thousands of indigenous people. Henequen thus became one of the main sources of income for the state of Yucatan. However, by the end of the thirties, the economic prosperity of the region began to decline due to a decrease in the North American demand for henequen fiber, since several tropical countries such as Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Hawaii had begun to cultivate henequen.

From 1937 to 1955, several official attempts were made in Mexico to reorganize the henequen production system. Companies were founded that formed henequen ejidos (" communal farms ") to control production and improve commercialization, but the results were not very encouraging. Henequen production continued to decline to the point that, for more than a decade, Mexico has been importing sisal fiber from Brazil.

However, henequen still offers possibilities. Sisal is still one of the highest quality natural hard long fibers in the world, which is a highly productive crop in ecological areas with water and soil limitations, and also has high potential as a source of sapogenins for the production of steroids, detergents, and cellulose. For the time being, it would be beneficial to increase cultivation and promote small industrial plants, which would benefit more than the 37,000 farmers who depend on the henequen activity in the Yucatan production zone.

A little-known fiber

Agave lechuguilla is another fiber species, with small stalks (about one meter long) and thicker fibers than those of henequen. This plant represents one of the very few sources of survival for numerous communities in regions suffering from scarce rainfall and infertile soils in the states of Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, and Hidalgo. In the latter state, especially in some villages belonging to the municipality of Ixmiquilpan, the use of the plant is still very traditional.

The lechuguilla fibers are used to make sacks for agricultural products; the waste is used as abrasives in the glass industry, in the production of car filters, rugs, and carpets, and small producers make brushes and brooms.

The states that use lechuguilla at an industrial level are Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas, where it is used to make sacks for corn, coffee, and other agricultural products; the waste is used as abrasives in the glass industry and the manufacture of filters for automobiles, rugs, and carpets. The main manufacturer of lechuguilla is Forestal FCL, which groups together more than 600 ejido cooperatives in these states, has processing plants and exports to several countries. The products are exported mainly to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.

The king of agaves

The blue agave (Agave tequilana) that thrives in Jalisco, particularly in the regions of Amatitán, Tequila, Arenal, and Los Altos, as well as in some municipalities of the neighboring states of Michoacán and Nayarit, is used to make the most famous Mexican brandy in the world, tequila. Since its beginnings, tequila has been a privileged product among other similar beverages, as its industry developed smoothly in the hands of landowners of Spanish origin who owned land and distilleries.

The expansion of the domestic and foreign markets was also favored by Porfirian politics, which made it easier for businessmen and industrialists to expand their market by opening new communication routes and introducing the railroad. Amid these conditions, the companies that would soon become the largest producers were born; two of them, Sauza and Cuervo, are to this day the main national tequila exporters.

Currently, tequila is exported to 60 countries around the world. According to Banco de Comercio Exterior statistics, the main buyer is the United States. 91% of exported tequila is sold in bulk (in large volume containers to be bottled outside Mexico), and only 9% is bottled at origin, which means that the profit from bottling the product does not stay in the country. The tequila industry employs more than 25,000 people, and approximately 30,000 hectares of maguey are cultivated.

An official standard specifies the characteristics that each type of tequila must meet, whether it is white, young, rested, or aged, to avoid adulteration and to oblige those who intend to trade with the product, whether in the country or abroad, to adhere to the standards established in Mexico, where tequila has its appellation of origin.

The mezcal agave

In the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, in the districts of Tlacolula, Etla, Zaachila, Zimatlán, Ejutla and Miahuatlán, several species of agave grow, including A. angustifolia and A. korwinskii. The former is the most commonly used for the production of another very characteristic liquor of our country, mezcal. "Mezcal is one of the products that we should value and not let it disappear," says a producer from the district of Tlacolula.

Mexico is the center of origin of agave, where 205 species are found, 151 of which are endemic.

The procedure for making mezcal is similar to that of tequila: both cases include four processes: boiling the "pineapple", crushing, fermentation, and distillation. However, the production of mezcal is still very rudimentary, since the cooking of the maguey "piña" is done in an oven built underground, the crushing is done with the help of horses or oxen, the fermentation is done in oak barrels, and while tequila is distilled twice, mezcal is distilled only once. For this reason, freshly distilled mezcal has more color and more concentrated flavors, while tequila comes out of the still white, transparent, and with a more delicate flavor.

Just as tequila officially obtained a denomination of origin, it was suggested that the same should be granted to mezcal. The existence of a mezcal region in the state of Oaxaca is now recognized, and a standard has been presented that sets out the physical and chemical specifications for both 100% agave mezcal (which contains sugars derived exclusively from agave) and mezcal simply called mezcal (which can contain up to 40% sugars from other products). This standard must also be applied in states that have mezcal-producing species such as Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas.

Pulque is legendary but underutilized

Dr. José Luis del Razo, a partner of Bebidas San Isidro, a company that has started a pulque bottling project, believes that "the culture of drinking pulque, the plant itself and the people who have always depended on it, are running out. We are wasting one of the most complete and balanced beverages, which contains the vitamin and energy levels that human beings need". Perhaps because of these characteristics, not only aguamiel ("mead") and pulque, but also the plant itself were highly appreciated by the ancient Nahuas. The species from which pulque is obtained are A. salmiana, A. mapisaga and A. atrovirens, which are distributed mainly in the Valley of Mexico and the states of Mexico, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and Puebla.

Like the mezcal and tequilero maguey, the maguey pulquero requires approximately ten years to reach maturity and be harvested. The productive stage of a maguey pulquero begins when it is "capado", that is to say, when the most tender stalks are cut from the center of the plant so that, after four months, it begins to produce its first liters of mead. The mead production period generally lasts three to four months and yields an average of 300 liters. From the fermentation of the mead, which takes less than 24 hours, the alcoholic beverage known as pulque is obtained.

Chemical studies have shown that mead and pulque are rich in protein, vitamins, and calcium. However, their consumption is practically lagging. In addition to natural pulque, products such as honey, pulque distillate, maguey worms, and maguey juice can be obtained as a flavoring for various dishes, which would reduce the use of mixiote. Obtaining a more varied production of the resource would represent greater profitability in addition to rescuing its cultivation.

By making integral use of the pulque agave, a more varied production could be obtained: honey, pulque distillate, aguamiel distillate, juice to prepare different dishes, and maguey worms.

Regardless of the commercial value of agaves, the ecological benefit they represent for soil conservation should be one of the reasons for their conservation. But agaves, like many other plants, are subject to unconscionable exploitation. One of the species currently in danger of extinction is A. victoriaereginae, a plant endemic to Mexico with only a few populations in the states of Coahuila, Durango, and Nuevo León. The main factor that has altered the populations of this species is the collection of plants for ornamental purposes that have a high value in the international market. The reduction of the population of a species causes a loss of genetic variability and reduces its potential to survive environmental alterations.

In recent decades, boards of trustees, promoters, commissions, and coordinators have been created to organize, promote or coordinate the use of maguey and its products, but their achievements have been scarce. Also, the use of magueys is limited, in many cases, to obtain a single product when a more integrated use could be made of them, which would mean greater profitability for the producers.

By Mexicanist, CONABIO, Biodiversitas (3)