Agave Americana (augustifolia)
Other Names - Agave, Century plant, Maguey, American aloe
Description - The Century plant has no stem. Its thick and massive gray-green leaves originate from a basal rosette. The leaves get up to 6' long and 10" wide, and have sharp spines on the margins and tips. The margin spines are recurved like fishhooks and the tip spines can be more than an inch long. The flower stalk is branched, 20-40' tall, and bears large (3-4") yellow-green flowers. Popular cultivars are 'Marginata' with yellow margins on the leaves, 'Mediopicta' with a broad yellow band down the center of each leaf, and 'Striata' with stripes. Cultivated varieties include the 'Marginata' with yellow stripes along the margins of each leaf, 'Mediopicta' with a central light band, and 'Striata' with multiple stripes along the leaves.
It is also known as the American aloe, although it is not related to the true aloes. If the flower stem is cut without flowering, a sweet liquid called agua miel ("honey water") gathers in the heart of the plant. This may be fermented to produce the drink called pulque, which may then be distilled to produce mezcal. The leaves also yield fibers, known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, coarse cloth and are used for embroidery of leather in a technique known as piteado. Many Agave are particularly well adapted to withstand climatic extremes, from drought to high heat, strong winds, and frost. They are generally free from insect pests and diseases and are less prone to nutrient deficiencies. They are also amazingly tolerant of poor and shallow soils.
History - The most ancient information revealing the existence of agave and its different uses is from the era before the Spaniards in several codices preserved to the present time (a codex, from the Latin codex meaning board or writing tablet, is a manuscript volume, especially of a classic work or scripture). The most important is the Tonalmatlnahuatl codex, which notes that certain tribes had learned to cook agave plants and used them as food and to compensate for the lack of water in desert lands. Also, these tribes discovered that cooked agave when soaked in water would ferment, producing a very appreciated beverage. In fact, this primitive and rudimentary method was used for centuries to produce beverages from agave, considered a sacred plant possessing divine properties. The general name for all species of agave (or mezcal as it is also known) was Metl, which is a representation of the goddess Mayahuel. The alcoholic drink produced was called Iztac octli (white wine).
Location - Century plant occurs naturally in arid areas of Mexico. It also has escaped cultivation and become established in the Mediterranean region of Africa and Europe.
Propagation Methods - By dividing rhizomes, tubers, corms or bulbs (including offsets). From leaf cuttings. Allow cut surface to callous over before planting.Edible Parts - Its flowers and flower buds are edible. Boil them before eating.
Other Uses - Cut the huge flower stalk and collect the juice for drinking. Some species have very fibrous leaves. Pound the leaves and remove the fibers for weaving and making ropes. Most species have thick, sharp needles at the tips of the leaves. Use them for sewing or making hacks. The sap of some species contains a chemical that makes the sap suitable for use as a soap. Maguey fibers are durable and versatile. Traditionally, the most commonly marketed product made from ixtle is rope. The fibers are also woven into large squares of fabric, called ayates, that are tied into carrying bags slung over the head like a tump and used to transport everything from infants to food to fuel. The fabric is woven on the backstrap loom. Ayates are still woven and used by Hnahnu women, who make both the relatively coarse everyday variety and the more finely woven ones given to a bride on her wedding day.Extracting the fibers is an extremely labor-intensive process, in terms of both time and energy. The pencas are typically four to five feet in length and weigh from eight to twelve pounds apiece. Once they are cut, they are roasted on a fire, usually stoked with quiotes and other dried scrap parts of the maguey. Then they are pounded with heavy clubs to loosen the fibers from the fleshy part of the penca. They are piled under heaps of stones, where they remain for two or three days until they're softened. Then they are unburied and, one by one, scraped until the fibers are cleaned of any remaining bits of vegetable matter. Next the bundles of fibers are taken to streams or rivers where they are thoroughly washed. Afterwards they're soaked in a solution of lime juice and cornstarch, to whiten them and neutralize their corrosive alkalinity. Finally they're wrung out and hung on quiote rails to dry.
Once they are dry they can be carded or combed and tied into bundles suitable for carrying around the shoulder while the spinner tends to daily tasks. In this way, any spare minute can be devoted to twisting the spindle to form the fibrous "yarn" called ixtle. When the spindles are full the fiber is transferred onto weaving shuttles, ready to be woven, knitted or crocheted.
Pharmacology - Contituents of Agave Americana was comosed of saponins and inulins. The main carbohydrate in agave plants is inulin. This polisaccharide can be hidrolized during the cooking process, leaving free monosaccharides such as fructose and glucose available to undergo the Maillard reaction in the production of pulque or tequila. Among the Maillard compounds found are:
Total Carbohydrate Grams
Agave Species in Mexico
Agave Nectar was found to have a glycemic index of 46. In contrast, honey has a reported glycemic index of 58, due to its higher ratio of glucose to fructose, as compared to the ratio of glucose to fructose in Agave Nectar. Please note: these values are based on using glucose as the reference point, which is the currently accepted approach relative to reporting glycemic index.
Medicinal Uses - Antiseptic, diuretic, laxative, healing, anti-inflammatory (it's efficacy in treating arthritis and rheumatism is not yet proven by scientific investigation). Agave Herb used internally for indigestion, flatulence, constipation, dysentary. Sap has disinfectant properties also useful in checking foul bacteria in the digestive system. A disinfectant diuretic formerly used in the treatment of syphilis. Has been used in the past for pulmonary tuberculosis, liver disease and jaundice.
Toxitity and contra-indications - Contact dermatitis and may result from sap contact. The allergens remain to be identified. The thorny edges of the leaves as well as the needle-sharp leaf tips of many species are capable of inflicting injury.
The Agave plant is native to North America, primarily Southern, Central Mexico up to the Southern United States. Some Agave syrup is used in liquors such as Tequila and Mezcal because of its high fermentabilty. Pure Tequila uses only the Blue Agave plant, which is reserved almost solely for the manufacturing of Tequila and is regulated by the Mexican Government.
There are many suppliers of Agave syrup in the market today. Some supply a standard syrup, some organic, kosher, dark or light. Agave syrup dissolves easily in other liquids, making it easy to use. The light Agave syrup seems best for a multiple of uses. It has a neutral flavor that does not interfere with a food's natural flavors. The darker Agave syrups have a more intense taste that can alter flavors. Agave syrup is an excellent, healthy alternative to refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. It is very low on the glycemic index, making it safe for people monitoring sugar levels. Agave syrup is approximately 1.5 times sweeter than sugar or honey. In recipes, replace sugar or honey with 25% less Agave syrup.
Agave plants are grown in Southern Mexico, primarily in and around Oaxaca, a region known for its Agave. Agave Americana (augustifolia) and Agave Mapisaga (var. mapisaga) are two of the Agave plant species used in product. The plants used for Agave syrup are grown in their natural habitat and allowed to flish on their own. No herbicides or pesticides are ever used and only a natural fertilizer made from plant remains is used and spread at the base of the Agave plant. The plants are occasionally watered at night during high temperatures to keep them from losing important fluids and nutrients. Agave plants have tiny pores that close during the day because of the heat. Closing the pores allows the plant to retain water. Hay is also used to cover the plants during extreme temperatures to shelter the plant from harmful elements. When the pores reopen in the evening, the plant takes in much need carbon dioxide.
Harvesting of Agave syrup is done twice daily, once in the early morning when the sun is just rising and again in the early evening when the sun is setting. The syrup is best collected while retaining nutrients and while the plant's pores remain as closed as possible. Planting of younger plants is also done during these early morning or later afternoon periods. The younger plants can be separated and replanted (cloning), allowing the parent to continue and flish.
An Agave plant reaches maturity at approximately 8 years of age. Agave syrup is collected from plants 10 to 12 years of age. The older plants seem to be best for syrup output, quantity and handling. The average Agave plant used for collecting syrup reaches one meter in height and one meter in diameter. The Agave plant can produce up to 2,500 liters of syrup in a one-year period or so. The Agave plants are grown and separated by age. This helps keep older plants from taking nutrients from the younger plants. At the age of 4 years or younger, the Agave plant is castrated to keep the plant from flowering. Sugar levels are highest when the Agave plant begins to flower because nutrients are being stored and increased for the plant to seed. However, seeds are never produced because of the castration to the plant. When the Agave plant is allowed to seed, the flower can reach up to 2 meters in height.
One must be extremely careful when coming into contact with the Agave plant. Agave plants typically have long spine like leaves with needles along the edges. The plant can be harmful to the touch. The plant can also produce a toxic liquid from the leaves that when in contact with human skin can cause burning and other irritations.
This part of the plant should not be confused with Agave fruit, which is located in the center of the plant. When harvesting Agave syrup a small hole or gash is put into the fruit using a small tool called a "Coa-De Jima" or an "Acocote". Agave syrup is then siphoned from the fruit. When the syrup is depleted from the fruit, the fruit will begin to gather more syrup. The fruit is typically siphoned twice a day until the fruit will yield no more syrup. The syrup can have a milky like substance from the Agave plant that is later filtered and processed out during the final processing of the syrup. When the Agave fruit will produce no more syrup, the fruit is removed and wrapped in a mesh cloth, smashed and pressed for any syrup that the fruit may still contain. It is then made into a pulp and used as fertilizer. The Agave plant itself can be cloned again. Once the Agave plant has exhausted its supply of syrup, it is then cloned or used as fertilizer for other Agave plants. Seeds are allowed to form on some plants for planting purposes.
The collected Agave syrup is then run through a number of mesh screens to remove and collect any of the plant's fibers and to obtain clarity. Once Agave syrup is thoroughly filtered, it is ped into large stainless steel vats and slowly heated at low temperatures not to exceed 120 degrees F. The heating is done on traditional adobe style brick stoves located in large bamboo wood-style huts. The fire is fed with wood from an opening found outside the hut. This method prevents cross contamination.
Agave syrup is periodically stirred and temperature monitored. This process allows excess water to evaporate and natural enzymes found in the Agave syrup to convert the syrup's carbohydrates into fructose (sugars). This process can take well over 48 hs to complete. light Agave syrup is then siphoned from the vat and pumped into 200 to 250 gallon tanks for transportation to the packing facility. If the Agave syrup is allowed to be heated longer, a darker and stronger tasting syrup can be achieved. However, the taste can be too strong and alter the flavors of foods. In times of higher water content, the Agave syrup may be run through a liquid vacuum evaporator. This procedure is rarely ever done for Agave syrup. When it is done, the temperature of the vacuum is closely monitored and never allowed to reach temperatures over 120 degrees F. Some producers use enzymes (enzyme hydrolyses) to process the Agave syrup. Agave syrup is bulk packaged at an Organic Certified facility, which packages many other products that use Organic Approved enzymes, which could incidentally come into contact with product. If at all traceable, levels should be less than 0.5% of the over all product. Some follow the traditional Ancient Aztec / Mayans processing of the Agave syrup as closely as possible, which allows the integrity of the finished product to conform to the National Organic Program (NOP).
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