Monday, June 25, 2012

Crazy Plants: Blue Agave

A blue agave plant (Agave tequilana) in Mexico
L. nivalis
Blue agave is a succulent plant native to Mexico whose common name comes from the blueish tint that can been seen in the leaves. The plant's reproduction is the same as other members of the Agave genus, after maturing at five to eight years. the plant sends up a long stalk that sprouts flowers at the top. These flowers are pollinated by the native Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis). A single plant is capable to producing thousands of seeds.

Despite some other interesting aspects to the plant, what is perhaps its best-known characteristics is the aguamiel (aka "honey water") found in the plant's core. This liquid substance is very sweet and has been used for years in the plant's native range for folk remedies. When processed, the aguamiel is turned into agave nectar, which has lately been touted for its supposed health benefits. Despite claims that the syrupy sweetener is healthier than other forms of sugar and friendlier to diabetics, there isn't much evidence that agave nectar has any health advantages. Though blue agave appears to be one of the main sources of agave nectar, other agave species are also used.

A core harvested for tequila making
Though agave nectar has received much press lately, it is far better known in its fermented form: tequila. That's right: blue agave is also known as the tequila agave or tequila plant as its aguamiel is used to produce the distilled beverage. Though other agave species can be used for production of agave nectar, only blue agave can legally be used for tequila making. Production is very labor intensive, requiring many steps to get from the plant to a bottle of alcohol. Those who choose to imbibe in tequila either in straight or mixed form shouldn't be left unaware of how much effort goes into that drink.

It's also true that without pollination by the long-nosed bat, there would be no new generations of blue agave to make into tequila. So, thank bats and thank the workers the next time you drink a little tequila. I, personally, cannot stand the stuff.

Sources are the University of Connecticut, Dave's Garden, Botanical Journeys Plant Guides, WebMD, USDA, and ITIS. Images are from Wikimedia Commons and are under Creative Commons licenses or copyright free: one, two, three.

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