They are often called century plants, but they don’t live for 100 years — not even close.
They look sort of like a cross between a towering cactus and a fleshy succulent — but in fact they are in the asparagus family.
Their appearance might not tantalize the taste buds, but parts of the plants have been roasted and eaten since prehistoric times.
These century plants, also known as agaves, are in beautiful bloom around Tucson — but much about them is exaggerated or misunderstood.
Agave experts helped sort out the myths and truths of the popular plants. Among them:
- “Century plant is a generic term for most agave species,” said Mark Fleming, curator of botany at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. “Most agave species live from 10 to 30 years before blooming, setting seed and dying. Some species have lived as long as 40 years in cultivation” — still far short of the supposed century-long lifespan that gave rise to the name.
- Century plants have bounced around a bit when it comes to their family tree. As originally described in texts, “Agavaceae consisted of 18 genera and a little over 400 species, many of them native to western North America,” wrote Mark Dimmitt, retired director of natural history at the Desert Museum, in a forthcoming book. That taxonomic category “has been revised by taxonomists several times in recent years,” Dimmitt wrote. “The currently recognized worldwide family Asparagaceae (Asparagus family) is considered ‘highly unsatisfactory’ because ‘nothing characterizes it.’ It includes agaves, yuccas, nolinas, desert lily, hyacinths, Australian grass tree, asparagus and snake plants.” Well, it might help to note that some agave stalks look a bit like asparagus spears.
- Century plants may not strike many of us as dinner fare, but they have been exactly that. “Several species of agave were selected from the wild and cultivated by indigenous peoples in the past,” said Fleming. “The mature plants were harvested, roasted and eaten as a vegetable.”
- Agaves themselves can provide an alcoholic drink to go with that dinner or to be quaffed on its own. “Most agaves of size can be processed through fermentation and distillation into an alcoholic drink,” Fleming said. Among such drinks are tequila, mescal and a fermented drink called pulque.
- Fiber from the leaves of some agave species has been used in ropes, rugs, bags and baskets, Dimmitt noted. The plants also have been used in tonics and medicines.
- Agaves, appreciated for their beauty, are often used as landscape plants in the Southwest and elsewhere. “They have been grown ornamentally in other parts of the world with similar climates” to that of the Southwest, Fleming said. “Some species have gone ‘feral’ in the Mediterranean region.”