Agave is a diverse genus of flora that contains just under two hundred species of succulent-like plants belonging to the Asparagaceae (formerly Agavaceae) family. Native to arid and semi-arid regions of the Americas, agave has been a significant ethnobiological staple of Mexican and Caribbean cultures for at least 10,000 years. Agave tequilana, or blue agave, is the most well-known variant of the hardy species and is used for the production of mescal liquors (namely tequila and pulque) and sweet agave syrup.
Tequila was first introduced to North Americans at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but agave was already considered ancient when Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico 400 years prior in 1492. Derived from the Greek “agavos,” meaning “illustrious,” the Aztecs worshipped agave and its corresponding deity, Mayheul, goddess of long life, health, dancing, and fertility. They believed the plant represented Mayheul’s earthly power of wind, rain, and crops.
Agave was both sacred and secular; it played significant roles in medicinal, ritualistic, and sacrificial practices, as well as everyday uses like food, mescals, ropes, brushes, sandals, nets, sleeping mats, and other items made from agave’s fibrous, leathery leaves. Agave was exported to the Old World by European explorers in 1520. Sixty years later, it was mentioned as a food of the Aztecs in the Florentine Codex of 1580.
Today, agave’s role in the global economy primarily centers around tequila production; only 10% of agave is harvested for agave syrup. Small, local farms’ inability to meet the high international demand for agave has led to ecologically detrimental farming practices that place profit over crop and ecosystemic sustainability (we’ll talk a bit more about this later). Research is also being conducted to test agave’s potential as a bioenergy crop.
On a smaller, at-home scale, agave can be used for more than margarita night. We’ve compiled six sustainable ways to utilize this ancient, versatile plant from hair masks to digestive aids to cane sugar substitutes.
Agave syrup -- or nectar, as it’s often sold -- has become a health food staple due to its organic sweetness, gluten-free composition, and relatively low glycemic index. However, the claim that agave syrup is a natural, healthier alternative to cane sugar or honey is slightly misleading. Agave syrup’s high fructose content makes it a better choice for those watching their blood sugar or insulin levels, as fructose does not affect blood sugar levels in the short term like glucose.
But high fructose-anything is best consumed in moderation, and agave syrup is no exception (agave syrup contains more fructose than high fructose corn syrup). Those with gastrointestinal issues or fructose sensitivities might want to avoid agave. With a higher calorie content than sugar or honey, agave syrup is a more natural, diabetic- and vegan-friendly option, but not necessarily an overall healthier one.
Agave syrup can be found at your local grocery store, online, or you can make your own. Because of its ultra-sweet flavor, you can substitute cane sugar for a smaller amount of agave syrup without compromising your baked good’s overall sweetness.
Agave can be harvested and cooked in a [variety of ways](https://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/agave#:~:text=Agave%20Flowers%20(Flor%20de%20Agave), but no part of the agave plant is meant to be consumed raw. Raw agave flesh and sap is caustic and can cause skin irritation and blistering. If you’ve never prepared raw agave before, we recommend familiarizing yourself with safety precautions used to avoid being pricked by thorns or handling toxic parts of the plant. More information on how to safely prepare agave can be found here.
The bright, aromatic flowers agave produces in the summer need to be boiled or steamed before eaten. After cooking for 20 to 30 minutes, the flowers can be battered and fried or added to scrambled eggs. Season with onion, garlic, and chili powder. For an extra punch of flavor, drizzle with salsa verde.
The broad, leathery leaves of the agave plant are harvested primarily in the winter or spring when the sap content is the highest. Leaves are cut into large chunks and roasted. Roasted agave leaves have a rich, caramel flavor and are an excellent source of fiber. Follow the traditional method of cooking barbacoa by wrapping the meat in long agave leaves before baking.
Agave syrup is full of hydrophilic polysaccharides, including fructose, saponin, and inulin, that make the sweet nectar a natural hair humectant. If you have curly hair that’s prone to frizziness and breakage in dry conditions, humectants can help prevent tangling and drying of the hair shaft. Using agave syrup hydrates your tresses without the addition of harsh chemicals often found in inorganic hair care products.
Incorporate organic, gently moisturizing agave syrup into your hair straightening or deep conditioning treatments. When mixed with cinnamon and olive oil, agave syrup can be used to promote hair growth.
Agave syrup’s hydrophilic qualities aren’t only beneficial for your hair. The syrup is often added to homemade soaps for a rich, moisturizing lather. Here are some of our favorite soap recipes that include agave syrup:
Agave’s versatile homeopathic benefits have been utilized for millennia. Its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic qualities help in the treatment of burns, bruises, bug bites, and abrasions. The Aztecs and Mayans used agave juice and egg whites to create a poultice that was placed on wounds to speed the healing process.
Agave juice has antibacterial qualities that can be used internally to control the growth of unwanted bacteria in the intestines, making it an excellent natural remedy for indigestion, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
Most of the world’s supply of agave is produced in central-western Mexico around Tequila and the Jalisco Highlands. In an effort to meet high international demand, many local agave farms have converted to oversized, commercial operations. Because of agave’s lengthy maturation period (roughly eight years), many commercial farms have begun harvesting the plant before it flowers and seeds. Young plants can’t reproduce naturally, so producers use clonal shoots to replenish crops. These genetically identical plants are more prone to crop-wide epidemics.
Harvesting agave before it’s flowered and seeded is disastrous for lesser-nosed bats (nicknamed the “tequila bat”). The bats and agave have coevolved over thousands of years; the bat relies on the agave for the majority of their sustenance, and the bats act as pollinators for the plant, allowing it to propagate naturally. Several conservation groups are currently working to raise awareness of these environmental concerns and promote more sustainable farming techniques, including the Tequila Interchange Project and Bat Conservation International.
Luckily, if grown in a warm or hot environment, agave is incredibly easy to maintain in a garden. Agave plants need full sun and gritty, well-drained soil. The hotter the climate, the more shade an agave plant can handle. A young agave needs frequent watering the first month after planting, but after that, the plant becomes very drought-resistant and needs little regular maintenance. They can also survive in smaller, well-draining containers with ease.
Agave plants provide a beautiful, hardy, Southwestern-inspired landscaping addition. Create a flora focal point with one or two agaves in your garden bed, or create a border grouping with several. Like other succulents, agave is practically made for neglect -- only a minimally green thumb is needed to get your backyard full of thriving agave.
Growing your own agave lets you reap all the benefits of this resourceful succulent without the sustainability issues related to buying mass-produced agave and agave byproduct. If adding agave to your garden isn’t a feasible option right now, you can still enjoy mindfully harvested and distributed agave products by visiting local farmer’s markets or opting for organic and fair trade brands like Wholesome Sweeteners, Madhava, or Wildly Organic.