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Agave

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AGAVE, a large botanical genus of the family Amaryllidaceae, chiefly Mexican, but occurring also in the southern and western United States and in central and tropical South America. The plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves generally ending in a sharp point and with a spiny margin ; the stout stem is usu ally short, the leaves apparently springing from the root. They grow slowly and flower but once after a number of years, when a tall stem or "mast" grows from the centre of the leaf-rosette and bears a large number of short, tubular flowers. After de velopment of fruit the plant dies down, but suckers are frequently produced from the base of the stem which become new plants. The most familiar species is Agave americana (see fig.), a native of tropical America, the so-called century plant or American aloe (the Maguey of Mexico). The number of years before flowering, 5 to 6o or more, but usually about i o, depends on the vigour of the individual, the richness of the soil and the climate ; during these years the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment required for the effort of flower ing. During the very rapid development of the immense peduncle, or flowering stalk, there is a rush of sap to the base of the young flower stalk ; by remov ing this large bud just as it is ready to emerge and by scooping out a cavity in the heart of the plant, a large quantity of sweet sap is obtained; and this agua miel, removed, carried in pig skin bottles to the central re pository, undergoes two kinds of fermentation, and when it has become thick, milky and more or less ropy (the sugars then being changed into alcohol) it is marketed as pulque (q.v.), the national drink of Mexico ; not withstanding its objectionable odor and consistency it is by some thought a wholesome and nourishing drink, and many train-loads are brought daily to Mexico City from the vast pulque plantations in the surrounding region. By distillation of pulque fuerte, or completely fermented juice, a very strong liquor, mescal, is obtained.

The leaves of several species yield commercial fibres: A. rigida elongata or A. fourcroydes is the henequen, or Yucatan sisal, for merly the principal sisal hemp (q.v.). A. rigida sisalana or A. sisa lana is the Bahama sisal, the culture of which is expanding greatly in East Africa and Haiti.

A. cantula is the Maguey, or Philippine sisal.

A. zapupe is the Mexican Zapupe fibre.

A. americana produces one of the Pita fibres, now grown in southern Europe and parts of the West Indies as well as in Mexico. .

A. neglecta is the Florida sisal, one of the largest species, the flower-stalk of which may exceed 42 feet in height.

The firm white pith of the interior of the flowering stem of any of these species, when dried and cut in slices has a variety of uses—as natural razor-strops, as lining of insect-boxes, insulating material, etc. The gummy, soapy juice expressed from the leaves will lather like soap and may be used as a detergent where alkali would be injurious. The thick reddish roots of various species are reputed to have medicinal properties. The concentrated sap exuded into the scooped-out central bud cavity is also used as a medicine and is a source of agavose (C12H22O11), one of the rare sugars. In the Madras Presidency the plant is widely used for hedges along railroads. Agave americana was introduced into Europe about the middle of the i6th century and is now ex tensively cultivated for its handsome appearance ; in the varie gated forms the leaf has a white or yellow marginal or central stripe from base to apex. As the leaves unfold from the centre of the rosette the impression of the marginal spines is very con spicuous on the still erect younger leaves.

leaves, species, plant, sisal and mexico