Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/March 1907/The Century Plant, and Some Other Plants of the Dry Country
|THE CENTURY PLANT, AND SOME OTHER PLANTS OF THE DRY COUNTRY|
MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN
IT would be interesting if we might know whether Columbus and his fellow voyagers noticed what is oddly called 'bamboo' by the present islanders, when they first saw the Bahamas in the autumn of 1492. The plant, a striking one even to us, must have seemed still stranger to Europeans at that time, for although Meyer and others have attempted to show that the century plant was known in the Mediterranean country as early as the eleventh century, and claim has even been made to its recognition among the mural paintings of Pompeii, a thousand years earlier still, Agave represents an essentially American and very distinct type of vegetation which must have been novel to those travelers into a new world. At any rate—they had little time for botanizing—there is no evidence that this conspicuous element in the Bahamian landscape was among the strange animals and plants that they paraded on their return home, and, curiously enough, it remains to-day without a published description or tenable scientific name.
The discoverers must have seen at least one other species of the same type when, during this first voyage, they found the Greater Antilles; and the busy quarter of a century which followed, with its additions of the Lesser Antilles, upper South America, and a part of the Gulf coast to the map of the world, undoubtedly revealed others.
The native name 'maguey,' which still persists in Porto Rico for a species of the related genus Furcræa, was mentioned in Martyr's book of 1516, and seems to have sufficiently impressed itself on the minds of the adventurers to assume a generic quality, for they later transferred it to the fleshy-leaved agaves of Mexico, which the aborigines knew as 'metl,' from which it is easily inferred that they had repeatedly seen and discussed and inquired about these strange fleshy-leaved plants with tall candelabrum-like inflorescence.
The most familiar of these plants in our gardens has long borne the popular name of century plant. Everybody knows it—or thinks that he knows it—to-day. Its rather narrow, somewhat grayish-green leaves have a peculiar curvature and their ends frequently arch downwards in a characteristic hooked form, while the prickles on their margins stand on marked fleshy hummocks, and the short stout end spine is not continued down the border as it is in some species. Perhaps even commoner than the typical form are one with bright yellow stripes down the sides of the leaves, and another with rather faint yellow lines distributed over the surface; and a still finer but much less common variety has a broad stripe of yellow down the center of the leaf. Among the cultivated variegated century plants one yellow-margined form, with the green parts of a darker shade and the end spine long and slender, has been distinguished for half a century under the name A. picta; but, as with the variegated forms of A. Americana, nothing is known as to its source or the first date of its appearance. Like the unvariegated form, these yellow-margined plants are now becoming established along the Italian Riviera.
When the American aloe, as it has often been called, was a novelty in Europe, its flowering was one of the wonders of the world. Not only did its size and form and the great age reached by some plants before flowering excite interest, but odd rumors seem to have gone abroad concerning its behavior. One of these gives indirect evidence of the long persistence of a colloquial expression familiar to most of us to-day, for Philip Miller, nearly two hundred years ago, gravely assured the British public that the flowers of this plant do not really open with a report like that of firing a gun, the then prevalent impression that they do so probably coming from a misinterpretation of somebody's statement that the flowering of a century plant 'made a great noise,' The phenomenon has now become so common as to attract no attention about the Mediterranean region, on the Channel Islands, and in the warmer parts of our own country, where the plants grow out of doors and flower when they are ten or fifteen years old; but it is still a matter of much interest in the colder countries where they require the protection of glass houses and develop slowly enough to suggest, if not quite to justify, their popular name.
The century plant shares with or even surpasses the true bamboo in its reputation of offering most of the necessities of human life. Food, drink, clothing, building material, forage, military barricades, razor-strops with soap and brush, medicine, pins, needles, paper, glue and a red coloring matter are said to be afforded by it.
It is true that most of the indicated uses may be made of it, but as a matter of fact the real century plant is very little used except for ornament or as a hedge plant, though its leaf fiber is firm, fine and white and used to a limited extent for the better class of cordage or for a stiff thread peculiarly adapted to some of the ornamental lacework of the Azores and Mediterranean countries. Nearly all its reputed uses actually refer to different if sometimes superficially similar plants which have been mistaken for it, and the literature of 'Agave Americana' is chaotic enough to tax the patience of even a botanist.
Perhaps the most curious thing that I can say of the real Agave Americana is that nobody knows to-day where to seek it as a spontaneous plant, and, except about the Mediterranean, where it has spread extensively, it seems to be found only as an obvious local escape from cultivation. It looks very much as if the Spanish conquerors took home, as one of their first illustrations of the maguey, a decorative rather than a much-used plant, which even then probably existed only in cultivation.
The traveler through that wonderfully interesting dry region to the southwest of us, the Mexican tableland, has his attention attracted by many of these candelabrum-bearing agaves. Even before reaching Laredo, if he go by that gateway into the neighboring republic,
he may see one large species, A. asperrima. If he enter by way of El Paso from the east, another, A. Parryi, may draw his notice, or, coming from the west, he may have seen another, A. Palmeri; and toward Nogales, the entrance point for Sonora, one of the most striking of them, with almost globose clusters of leaves, A. Huachucensis, is visible from the train.
One of the most effective of these landscape-making plants covers certain mountain-sides near Tehuacan, a health resort which every visitor to Oaxaca and the wonderful ruins of Mitla passes through after leaving Puebla. Its stately panicles are of a brilliant yellow, and more beautiful than those of the ordinary century plant; and its great rough leaves are so marbled with alternating greener and grayer cross bands that it has received the distinctive name A. marmorata. Elsewhere about the same city, in company with a full dozen other distinguishable agaves, is an abundance of the beautiful little white leaved plant, now popular in gardens, which was named Fig 2. Agave Picta. A. Verschaffeltii after its importer, some forty years ago.
Even in Mexico it is the planted rather than the wild agaves that attract attention. Hedgerows or dooryard specimens of them are found everywhere, and in the region to the south of the City of Mexico there are many miles of territory seemingly devoted entirely to their cultivation. Phalanx after phalanx of them stretches away to the horizon as the train speeds through, with hardly a sign of other vegetation except for a cottonwood or pepper tree now and then where water happens to occur, or a cypress marking the resting place of the dead. Through this district, centering about the little town of Apam, it is almost exclusively the dark green giant, A. atrovirens, which is grown, though, as with extensively cultivated plants Fig. 3. Dockyard Specimens. elsewhere, in numerous horticultural varieties which look much alike to the botanist but are distinguished by the planter. Over thirty such forms are said to be planted in the plains of Apam. In the immediate suburbs of the capital city, about Tacubaya, and locally elsewhere in this central district, other forms, differing even to the unspecialized eye, are similarly grown in quantity. As one passes to the colder regions of the north or descends from the table-land into the hot country, still other and different looking species of the same type replace A. atrovirens, which, however, far outnumbers and surpasses them all in its aggregate farm importance. These plantations are the basis of the pulque industry of Mexico—at once a large item in its agricultural wealth, and one of the greatest curses to its peon population, many of whom arc kept in poverty and sottishness through it.
A philosophical historian notes that man has never remained content with water as a beverage, and that agriculture, affording a means of obtaining abundant intoxicants as one possible and alluring substitute, has borne the curse of drunkenness in all ages. The discoverers of the new world found the cultivation of the maguey or metl, and the production of a fermented drink, 'octli' or 'pulque' from its sap,
an established industry, which even then had worked its fatal course with the Toltec race.
The present traffic in pulque is large. Something over five million barrels of it are used in the Mexican republic every year, of which quantity about half is consumed in the capital city and much of the remainder in Puebla and the other large cities of the central plateau. Cheap as it is, for it sells for from one to three cents of Mexican money for a large glass, its aggregate value amounts to several million dollars gold, a year. Special trains are run into the City of Mexico every morning for its delivery, as is done with the milk supply of our own cities.
In the Apam district, the plantations are chiefly found on the large haciendas or estates. The first impression of a traveler who passes from Vera Cruz to the capital is likely to be wrong if, as is usually the case, he regard the table-land—so barren after the tropical vegetation in and below the coffee country—as a desert with this strange industry as its one resource. The observant person, however, sees, usually with surprise, enormous stacks of straw here and there in the maguey fields, each commonly marked with a great carved cross or other symbol, and all carefully trimmed into house form; and a shrewd inference
that where there is a good deal of straw there must be some grain is justified on a closer acquaintance with the country.
A first visit to a Mexican hacienda is an interesting episode in one's traveling experiences. Comfort, as we understand it, is scarcely to be had in the dustier regions during the dry season; and as one looks over the barren country it is hard to see where food is obtained for the swarm of peon retainers for whom even a church is not lacking in the walled village which their dwellings constitute. The wealth of such an estate is found in its extent. I recall the surprise with which, after a day of blinding dust on a hacienda within sight of the great snow peak of Orizaba, as I asked myself how people could find a living in such a place, I noticed the arrival of a wagon-load of dry fodder in the enclosure, quickly followed by another and another and still others, until some twenty had come in—each drawn by five mules. Then I began to realize the number of draft animals alone that were engaged in bringing in the night's food for the others, and was less surprised when, in droves of twenty or fifty, sheep and cattle began to appear from remote points—until I ceased counting and returned to my original question with even greater wonder. It is on these large estates that the maguey—almost the only green thing to be seen in the long dry season—finds its place as one of the many forms of agricultural resource; the ground between them being frequently made to yield an annual grain or other crop which the agaves supplement as, here and there, they mature one at a time.
The pulque maguey is a large plant, and its rosette of thick leaves, though appearing to lie next the ground, is really spaced along a stout trunk as large as a small barrel. The whole, charged with sap, weighs several tons. If left to itself, as it is in gardens on the Riviera, where it is called A. Salmiana, like the century plant it produces a gigantic scape, topped with a candelabrum of flowers, when somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen years old. This is never permitted on the large plantations, for the plant possesses its maximum value when it has reached vegetative maturity and the scape is about to develop. At the critical moment, known from the appearance of the central bud, this is cut out and a shallow cavity is made in the crown of the trunk, which is covered by a stone, pieces of maguey leaves, or other protection. Into the cavity so formed the sap exudes. It is removed two or three times a day, the surface being scraped and the cavity slightly enlarged each time, until at last nothing but a thin shell of the trunk remains, the leaves meantime having given up their content of fluid and dried to their hard framework—as happens naturally during the flowering period of all the larger agaves, when the reserve of sap is drawn into the rapidly growing scape and flowers.
For a period of three months or more a good plant yields a gallon or two of sap daily, and its value may be not far from ten dollars on an average; from which it will be seen that a large maguey plantation represents a considerable item in the assets of a landed proprietor of the plains of Apam.Often the peons who cut the matured plants fasten part of the bud leaves on to the spines of the outer ones, so that those in bearing may not be overlooked as the tour of the plantation is made by the laborers who gather the sap. One of these men, making his rounds, is an odd sight. Over his back, usually separated from it by a zarape or blanket if he is fortunate enough to have one, or by a piece of
sacking if he is so poor as to feel compelled to reserve his zarape for dress occasions, is swung from his forehead by a head-yoke a pig-skin, supported by a sac, or more usually by a coarse net of cordage, and sticking out from its open top is to be seen a long gourd of the type that we call the Hercules club. In his hand he carries a short curved knife. Plodding from one bearing plant to another, the Indian stops at each long enough to uncover the cavity in its crown, press the smaller end of the gourd to its bottom and, by sucking at the upper end, draw into the lower part of the gourd the exuded sap, and thrust the gourd over his shoulder into the pig-skin bag on his back—his finger meantime stopping the upper hole so that the fluid may not run out until he wishes it to. A quick scraping of the cavity follows, the stone or other cover is replaced, and he passes on. Sometimes he trudges home with his burden as often as the pig-skin is filled; but on the larger haciendas a burro, saddled with large bags of the same kind, awaits him at one side of the field, and the work continues until at length man and donkey go in with a full load.
The fluid which collects in the hollowed trunk of a cut maguey plant and is gathered in the manner described, is called 'agua miel,' or honey-water, because of its sweetness: nine or ten per cent, of its weight is sugar, and this furnishes the basis for the alcoholic fermentation which is the chief factor in its conversion into pulque. The agua miel of the Apam district is thin, clear and colorless. It is of a rather pleasant taste if dipped from the plant in a gourd and free from drowned insects, but fact or fancy gives it various reminiscent flavors under other circumstances.
The fermentation practises in pulque making are still mostly primitive. I have had a Mexican gentleman tell me that although when the agua miel was gathered and fermented in a way to please him he considered it a delicious drink, he would not think of touching pulque as offered, for instance, at the railway station in Apam—where the conversation occurred. The vats used are of ox-hide stretched on frames, and they are usually three or four feet wide and nearly as deep. Fermentation is begun by the introduction of a starter or 'mother of pulque' obtained by preliminary fermentation, and is carried on without, or at most with little, artificial control of temperature, and under conditions of positive or negative cleanliness which differ with the various haciendas.
When marketed, the pulque is a white, decidedly viscous fluid containing about eight per cent, of alcohol; fermentation has not been solely alcoholic, however, and its flavor is in part due to changes wrought by bacteria of several kinds which are introduced with the starter in company with the yeast. Continuation of the action of these collateral ferments causes the beverage to spoil in a day or two under ordinary conditions.
Familiar sights about Apam and in the capital are wagons loaded with the large casks in which pulque is transported from the haciendas to the railroad and again to the gaudily colored but often disreputable and usually filthy shops where it is dispensed—from open barrels into which glasses are plunged by hand with no greater care to prevent contact with the human person than marks some of the earlier stages in the conversion of grape juice into wine—and the patrons of which are not prepossessing.
Where the maguey, though capable of cultivation, yields a lesser or inferior product, agua miel is often more appreciated in its unfermented state. As hawked around the streets of Monterey, for instance, in porous earthenware receptacles, it is a cool yellowish fluid, that I must confess I find refreshing on a hot day—especially after I have seen it gathered by means of a long-spouted tin pump and transported in tin cans; and the limpid, yellowish, cidery, foamy product of its fermentation in the north is more to my taste than the white, viscous, odoriferous pulque of the Apam district—which alone pleases the adept.
With smaller production of pulque away from this center, more primitive methods of transportation persist; the shipping cask of the large producer, carried by a special train, may be replaced by the burro-borne pig-skin; and, as I have observed in Tuxpan, the pulque shop may give way to the street hawker, with an earthenware olla, the contents of which from time to time are freshened up by being sucked into and allowed to gush back, frothing, from a gourd of the sort used
in gathering the agua miel—the bowls of customers being filled by aid of the same convenient implement.
Considerable medicinal virtue has been claimed for pulque, and some efforts have been made to specially prepare, bottle and Pasteurize it for medicinal or even table use, but, except in the region of its production, where it is the common beverage, the bulk of it is used as an intoxicant, pure and simple. From it is also produced a rather small quantity of distilled liquor, 'mezcal de pulque.'
Away from the central district, where the product of a single plantation is not sufficient to keep a fermentation establishment in profitable operation, it is sometimes the practise of the growers to sell their plants, as they mature, one by one, to a maker of pulque, whose employees, trudging from one to another, attend to cutting them and gathering their sap. Under these conditions, or where the market is still less certain, the plants frequently succeed in sending up their scapes. Fig. 8. Man and Donkey. Sometimes flowering is permitted, and the plant yields nothing more than a light rafter-pole, capable of being sliced into good razor-strops, a little green fodder for the cattle, and a few dried leaves that may be used for thatching a hut. At other times the stalk, or 'quiote,' is cut down before the flowers have too far sapped it, stripped of its woody exterior, and cut into disks a few inches long which may be Fig. 10. Frothing from a Gourd. seen peddled around the streets in Durango, for instance—to be split into strips and chewed like sugarcane. If a distillery is at hand, the leaves are often cut away from a plant of this sort, or one that has not been allowed to form its quiote, above their very thick 'pencas' or bases, and the trunk, so prepared, is marketable for the manufacture of mezcal. From data obtained of a peon, I once figured out that away from the principal pulque region the value of a plant is practically the same whether cut for agua miel or, after harvesting its quiote, sold to the mezcal distillery. Fig. 9. Where Pulque is Sold.
Mezcal is a term applied comprehensively to the liquor obtained by distillation from the fermented juices of agaves. Four or five million gallons of it a year are produced, and its value may amount to some $2,000,000 gold. The center for the manufacture of this beverage is to the west of Guadalajara, and the town of Tequila, situated there, has imposed its name on the higher grade of liquor, which is clear, smoky, rather smooth, and with a characteristic essential flavor; it usually contains forty or fifty per cent, of alcohol, and, like pulque, possesses certain medicinal properties.
Like pulque, mezcal is sold cheaply. It is to be found everywhere and contributes largely to the demoralization of the native peon, who often drinks it to excess and, like many another human type, commits most of his crimes when influenced by alcohol. Those who watched for the threatened revolution of the sixteenth of September last, probably noticed that the very wise head of the republic forestalled any large demonstration by seeing that drinking places were closed throughout the country.
To supply the distilleries at Tequila, a considerable acreage is planted to mezcal agaves. Those most used there belong to a well marked, narrow-leaved species which a few years ago received the appropriate and distinctive name A. Tequilana. As with the pulque species,
a number of horticultural forms of this are recognized. The leaves are generally glaucous, and a field of these white plants produces a striking effect. If allowed to bloom, this, too, develops a striking and large candelabrum of flowers; but, like the pulque maguey, it is harvested when mature but before its saccharine food reserve has been exhausted in the production of flowers and fruit. The leaves are cut back to their thick bases and the trunks, so trimmed, are packed—usually on mules—to the distillery, where, after a preliminary roasting, still in rather primitive smoky pits, they are converted into a mash which is fermented in large wooden tanks and then distilled in modern apparatus, much as is clone in the production of liquors elsewhere. At these modern stills, the bagasse from which the mash has been squeezed by rollers is even packed away by half-naked laborers to be used to feed the furnaces.
In addition to this mezcal de Tequila—or plain 'tequila,' that made direct from the maguey trunks, and the mezcal de pulque already referred to, a great deal of this sort of liquor is made from wild agaves of many kinds, throughout the length and breadth of Mexico; indeed a common if not universal distinction is made between the large 'maguey' species and the smaller ones, which are called 'mezcal' like the beverage obtained from them. The process is everywhere essentially the same in so far as the preliminary roasting and fermenting processes are concerned; but the stills vary from the ordinary retort type in its simplest form, with a 'worm' cooled by flowing water, to the most primitive apparatus by which a paying part of the alcohol may be condensed into fluid form while making its escape from the kettle.
While at Mitla, a few years ago. I was directed to a distillery of this latter kind, not far from the prehistoric ruins for which the place is famed, and my companion and I were permitted to make photographs showing trimmed agave trunks newly brought in from the surrounding mountains and sheltered from the sun while kept in storage, fuel for the roasting pit, the wooden mash barrels and the maul used in crushing the roasted material, the ox-hide fermentation vats supported on rude frames of crooked wood, and the very primitive still of glazed earthenware kettles, set over a crude oven, each capped with a saucerlike metallic cover which was cooled as far as this could be done by a stream of mountain water, while below it a funnel caught the condensed liquor and passed it through a reed spout into a waiting small receptacle.
In northwestern Mexico, 'mezcal' is largely replaced by 'sotol' as the distilled drink of the peon. This liquor, which has the general character of the former, is said to be made in a similar manner from the trunks of several species of the saw-leaved lilies (Dasylirion) which are commonly known as sotol and in the stock country are frequently split open to enable animals to get at the pulpy nutritious contents of their stems.
Among the early stories of the new world was an account of the roasting of maguey trunks, and their use as food. They do not appear to be largely used in this manner now, except by the nomadic Indians. In the days of the Apaches, the roasting and eating of mezcal was frequently noted, and the botanist or geologist who gets back into the mountains still occasionally sees it. On our side of the boundary, however, I understand that spectators are not welcomed at a mezcal roast; and the impression has been left on the mind of one of my friends that what was not eaten of the product was likely to undergo fermentation and be saved from becoming a total loss by the aid of the still—a practise on which our government does not smile so complacently as does that of the adjoining republic. Old mezcal pits are Fig. 12. White Plants. not uncommon in southern Arizona, where Agave Palmeri was much eaten; and they are to be seen in the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona, where A. Utahensis is abundant.
The most important economic agaves are not the source of alcohol, but those which yield 'henequen,'—a native name introduced by Oviedo only a few years after Yucatan was discovered. This, so far as Mexico is concerned, is practically a product of Yucatan, though some of the other tropical states Fig. 14. Sotol. yield a small quota, and it has a yearly value of some $30,000,000 gold. A large part of it comes to the United States for use in cordage, etc., under the name 'sisal hemp' or 'sisal grass,' which is derived from a port of shipment. Our imports for the past three years average about $15,000,000 annually.
Most of the agaves have a strong fiber in their leaves, the use of which is prehistoric. That of the century plant is particularly white and fine, and, as I have said, is considerably used. The fiber of the pulque species, from the manner in which the sap is gathered, is little used; the very fleshy-leaved species are also hard to clean. The Tequila mezcal Fig. 13. Half-naked Laborers. is said to produce a good quality of fiber, which—its harvesting not interfering with the main use of the plants—is coming to be regarded as a valuable by-product of this species; and several other agaves are either cultivated on a smaller scale for their fiber or exploited as they occur spontaneously.
Henequen, however, is par-excellence the fiber agave. An interesting minor chapter in our national evolution is contained in the numerous appeals made to Congress about seventy years ago by our former consul at Campeche, Henry Perrine, who desired a land grant in subtropical Florida for the cultivation of this and other tropical plants. The grant cost him his life, for he was killed by the Indians, and the zone of henequen in this country scarcely goes beyond the radius of his own tentative introduction of plants; but the Yucatan industry, which in Dr. Perrine's day was small, though he saw a great future for it if only the fiber could be less laboriously cleaned than it then was by hand, has grown greatly, and the Bahamas, India, Hawaii and tropical Africa are entering the field with more or less realization of their expectations of gain from this crop.
Like the pulque maguey and the Tequila mezcal, henequen is represented in the larger plantations by several horticultural forms if not by more than one distinct species. The one most grown in Yucatan appears to be the taller form with long, narrow, prickly leaves, generally known to foreigners as white or gray henequen—and usually, but wrongly, designated by botanists as Agave rigida elongata. A better fiber plant is the entire-leaved green henequen, called Agave Sisalana by Perrine, also, but to a smaller extent, grown in Yucatan, and now spontaneous in tropical Florida from Perrine's importation. It is this which has been introduced into the Bahamas and Hawaii, though both the gray and green forms are being experimented with elsewhere.
The utilization of a henequen plant is not effected abruptly at the end of its life, as with the pulque and mezcal species, but, after a wait of five or six years, it extends over a period of from seven to fourteen years, during which the annual yield is said to be from 20 to 40 leaves per plant in several gatherings—the number of mature leaves removed each year determining the longer or shorter period during which cropping may continue. One of the difficulties experienced in trying to cultivate henequen away from the limestone terraces of Yucatan has been that it goes to seed at too early an age, for this ends its usefulness instead of at the same time bringing it to fruition as is the case with the plants grown for pulque or mezcal, though its expiring energy is said to be then thrown into leaf production by cutting out the scape at its inception.
The cultivation of henequen in Yucatan is comparable with that of the maguey on the plains of Apam, in that it is now chiefly in the hands of large proprietors. Plantations are extensive, and the mills for cleaning the fiber are proportionately large. The older leaves are cut, at such intervals and in such numbers as the condition of the plants is thought to warrant, and, after the prickles have been sliced from their edges, trucked or carried on tram roads to the mill, where, while they are still fresh, by means of some form of rotary scraper (an idea tersely suggested by Perrine, and for the successful application of which, as I read, a large sum was later paid to another) the pulp is removed. The fiber, suitably washed and dried, is then baled for export. In the state of Vera Cruz a plant of the same group has recently come into local prominence, and is said to be considerably planted under the name 'zapupe,' and to yield an excellent fiber.
One of the agaves longest known in gardens is that for which botanists are now restoring the name A. Vera Cruz which Miller applied to it, following its earlier polynomial designation of 'Aloe America ex Vera Cruce foliis latioribus et glaucis.' Like the henequen, it yields a fiber for which it is somewhat cultivated in the state of Vera Cruz; and I understand that it is this species to which the 'Agave Americana' of Indian fiber-culture reports refers.
In India, for a century and a half or more, has been known another agave which is properly called A. Cantula, though it is frequently
spoken of under the name A. Roxburghii, which was given to it later. Erroneously, it is even more often designated by the name A. vivipara, which, as used by Linnæus, belongs to a very different plant common in the Greater Antilles. This species, the source of a considerable quantity of Indian fiber which is known in the market as Bombay aloe, and of a small but increasing amount of Philippine fiber under the name 'Manila aloe,' is a close relative of the Tequila mezcal. Adequate study will probably result in its final positive identification with some American species; but at present it shares with another Indian species of the same group the distinction of representing in Asia a genus otherwise exclusively American—if the generally discredited hypothesis that the century plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean region be not true.
In comparison with the great cultures of henequen, all of the other utilization of agaves for fiber is of rather small importance. Nevertheless, considerably more than a million dollars' worth of so-called 'ixtle' fiber is marketed in Mexico each year, in addition to a very large quantity used locally for lassoes and other cordage and the like. From the port of shipment, ixtle is commonly known as Tampico fiber. Our imports for the last three years average about one and a quarter million dollars in value. Unlike henequen, this is the product of several distinct plants, of which a number belong to the very different genera Yucca, Samuela and Hesperaloe, and in the tropics the name is also applied to Bromelia fiber; but the larger part of the Tampico fiber is obtained from two dwarf species of Agave. Comparatively little of it comes from large plantations, except in the warm region above Tampico, where extensive jdanting is now being undertaken—and a large part of the exported ixtle is obtained from this district. Aside from its Hesperaloe ('Zamandoque') and Samuela ('Palma Zamandoque') constituents, the longer grade of Tampico fiber—which even then is shorter than henequen—seems to be produced chiefly by an agave spontaneous as well as cultivated in the state of Tamaulipas, and known botanically as A. Funkiana. In the cooler country, especially in the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, a shorter fiber is obtained from the closely related wild 'lecheguilla,' the native name of which has been adapted by botanists into Agave Lecheguilla.
On the plantations, and possibly to a very slight extent elsewhere, the fiber is cleaned by machinery, much as henequen is; but a great deal of it is still prepared laboriously by hand. It is here the central bud or 'cogollo' of young leaves, which is used, and not the harder old ones, and the pulp is removed from the fiber by means of a hand scraper of metal used against a supporting block of wood.
In the northern part of the republic, where, as in western Texas, lecheguilla is extremely abundant over a large area, the extracted fiber, sometimes used for brushes, bath pledgets, etc., is usually spun by hand into cords or these into ropes on a primitive rope-walk, a child twirling the strands as they grow from the apron-like bag of fiber carried by the spinner. This is the common cordage of the country, and is used for tying purposes, lariats and the like, as well as to make sacking, saddle-bags, and the head-yokes with which the human beast of burden always goes provided in that land. Visitors to Monterey are often interested in the rope-walks, which may be seen anywhere in the outskirts of the city, as well as in the manufacture of the lecheguilla cord into coarse bagging which is effected in an equally laborious and simple manner—the cord being woven into oblong mats which are then folded across the middle and stitched down the sides, everything being done by hand. The charm of these simple sights to the tourist is largely enhanced by the general friendliness of the workers, who are usually willing to chat or be photographed and whose Fig 16. affection for their children is an unfailing and very pleasing sight, but the poverty of their homes, only too evident to even the less prying sight-seer, is scarcely compensated for even in this affection—which appears to me the best quality of the Mexican peon.
The lecheguilla agave well pictures a division of the genus in which the flowers are clustered along the upper part of the scape instead of being disposed on the branches of a candelabrum-like top. Of this type is further the 'guapilla'—A. falcata—a very narrow-leaved small species of the region about Saltillo, which also yields good ixtle.
The minor uses of agaves are hardly worthy of detailed mention in comparison with their commercially important use as a source of fiber and alcohol. These uses, however, are many, as I have already said. Under the name 'amole' one may buy in most Mexican market places either leaf bases of agaves like A. filifera or,
more commonly, rootstocks of the so-called herbaceous species, for use as vegetable soap; the claim has recently been made that the sap from henequen leaves in process of cleaning can be converted into a valuable glue; and from the time of the Aztecs innumerable domestic uses have been found for one part or another of these interesting plants.
So far as inference may go, it was none of the agaves of the earlier discovered West Indies or Yucatan which was first taken across the water, in small specimens for gardeners to care for and grow into some semblance to their native form and size, but one or more species from Mexico proper, to illustrate the wonderful 'metl' of that land. The importation may have been made very soon after the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, but I find no record concerning it. It is even questionable what species was actually first taken over. The first tangible record of an Agave in Europe is given by Clusius, a Belgian botanist who, Fig. 18. Willing to be photographed. traveling through Spain somewhat more than a generation after the conquest of Mexico, found an aloe of this kind sparingly cultivated at Valencia, where he obtained offsets which he took home, and one of which he figured in 1576. While this first picture probably represents A. Americana, as it is usually supposed to do, it must be admitted that it resembles also the common pulque maguey of the table-land, even then an important plant, but which is not known to have been in European gardens before the middle of the century just closed. In 1586 an American aloe flowered at Florence, and was figured by Camerarius two years later. This picture is less questionable than that of Clusius, as representing what we now call the century plant, but it might possibly stand for what, a century later, was grown in Dutch gardens as the broader-leaved aloe from Vera Cruz—now known as Agave Vera Cruz or the synonym A. lurida. The reported escape of the latter species in central Italy lends some support to this surmise; but the picture can not be said not to represent A. Americana, the wide-spread naturalization of which through the Mediterranean countries seems to indicate conclusively that, whichever may have been introduced first, it was really the century plant that was first extensively propagated in Europe.
The agaves have been esteemed as garden curiosities ever since their Fig. 19. The First Picture. first introduction into the civilized world, and many of them are really beautiful plants; but while one of them has leaves only an inch long, the size of others is so great as to render them unsuitable for ordinary cultivation under glass, and really representative collections have been made by only a few amateurs and botanical gardens. About forty years ago a taste for growing some of the smaller species was fostered by Belgian dealers who successfully exhibited and advertised select specimens of new importation, some of which sold for very profitable sums; but I do not recall a single one of the private collections of a generation ago which is still kept up, though fortunately some of the better plants have found their way finally to Kew or some other botanical establishment.
Botanists have generally agreed to date their scientific naming of plants from 1753, when Linnæus Fig. 20. Figured by Camerarias. substituted the convenient binomial for the awkward if usually terse description that had been used up to that time when reference was made to a plant. This date, consequently, begins the modern history of Agave, which, some years earlier, had been segregated from the African genus Aloe.
In his 'Species Plantarum' published in that year, Linnæus describes only four species—one of which, the 'cabuja' of the tropical mainland, belongs to a sufficiently distinct genus, Furcræa, which was separated from Agave half a century later. One of the remaining three is the century plant, A. Americana; another is a characteristic large species of the Greater Antilles, A. vivipara; the other is an interesting little plant of our own flora, with thin leaves which die down every winter, and a slender raceme of flowers, A. Virginica, which is now made the type of a distinct genus, Manfreda. From the two Linnæan species left after the segregation of Furcæa and Manfreda, the genus Agave grew step by step, through later discoveries, to 127 species distinguished by its latest monographer. Of these, 35 belong to the candelabrum group designated as Euagave and represented by the two Linnæan species, and 46 have the flower-cluster contracted as in A. Lecheguilla, constituting the group Littæa. The inflorescence of the remaining 46 was not known when this monograph was written—nearly twenty years ago, and a very large part of the species have been known only through cultivated plants, most of which were described when immature, and of which no inconsiderable number died or were lost sight of before reaching a flowering age.
The describer of a garden species of Agave usually finds himself impelled to set down its probable habitat as Mexico. In this guess he is
favored by the law of chance, for only a few agaves occur to the north or south of Mexico or in the West Indies; but a considerable number of intentional or chance hybrids have originated in gardens in addition to some apparently purely cultural forms, the numerous descriptions of the last two decades are widely scattered and little comparable, and the genus stands to-day as one of the worst confused of its size—the actual number of its species apparently being not far from 200.
There appears little hope of removing this confusion except by protracted field study under unusually difficult conditions, supplemented by garden cultivation of plants from definitely ascertained spontaneous sources. Serviceable herbarium specimens are rarely seen. Their preparation is unusually difficult because of the large size and succulent nature of the plants, but they can be made. The camera is as indispensable to the field student of these plants as the trowel or drying press, and the data used by whoever may succeed in adequately monographing the agaves will necessarily include habit pictures and full-size details, photographed on the spot.
Anything which takes one into the pure air and bright sunshine of the mountains brings in the enjoyment of these a full compensation for the inseparable hardships of travel in a sparsely settled country where the comforts of life are not to be looked for outside of the larger cities, and where one frequently goes to bed literally with the chickens or is stabled in the barnyard.
The agaves are preeminently plants of rocky places. Some of them delight in hanging from the sides of cliffs which are all but inaccessible. Others grow in the middle of the great fields of broken ragged lava to which the Mexicans have applied the expressive name 'malpays' or bad lands. Collecting under such conditions is scarcely capable of description without the unimpeachable evidence of the phonograph, which is not yet generally recognized as a necessary part of the botanist's equipment. I regret that while I have been able to show pictures giving some idea of the obstacles to travel in the barrancas and lava beds, of the altogether tantalizing places in which choice plants are seen, and of the difficulties attending the transportation of those that can be reached, I have no phonographic record fit for public demonstration.
- A lecture delivered in the Field Museum Course at Chicago, on October 13, 1906.
- Payne, 'History of the New World,' 1: 401, 404.