What gives with agave (Mayahuel, goddess of the agave, and man-gaves)

The home of the Penrith Panthers (a football team not playing in any of the finals on this weekend) was decked out this morning with cacti, succulents and 100 cacti-and-succulent-enthusiasts from Australia, New Zealand, USA, the UK and Korea.

It was day one of Cacticon 2010, the 21st Conference of the Australasian Cacti & Succulent Societies. As Patron of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales I was invited to give the Official Welcome. I made mention of my Mammillaria misidentifications when a young horticultural assistant at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and the (deliberate) spread of cacti and succulents through the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

I was only able to stay for the morning session, to hear Colin Walker talk on 'Agaves through the Ages, parts I and II', Wayne Robinson on 'A Day of Nothing' (all about his trip to the town of Nothing in southern USA, a place with a definite something in regard to impressive cacti and succulents) and Dan Downie on 'What's the Use of Cactus?'. I'll finish with a few of Dan's 'uses' for cacti, but here are some notes from Colin Walker's talk. Colin is a lecturer at Milton Keynes University in UK, and a keen grower of Agaves and other succulents, although as he said quite a few times during his talk, he has never had an agave in his collection flower.

The 240 species of Agave grow naturally in central America, with most diversity in Mexico (205 species, 85% of genus).

The first images of agave appear in Aztec times, particularly in the depictions of Mayahuel, goddess of the Agave. It wasn't spelt out how Mayahuel interacted with the succelent but it was clearly important to her, and the Aztecs. Abstract drawings of the goddess, and agave, were around before the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century but it was a Spaniard, Francisco Hernandez, who produced the first 'recognisable' images in the 1570s after spending seven years travelling in Mexico studying its nature and culture.

When agaves arrived in Europe they were considered ‘wonders’, and featured in early herbals like that of  Gerard in 1597 (which also included aloes from Africa - at that time agaves and aloes were all called 'Aloe')

The Dutch were the next to illustrate and document. Succulents travelled well so many of them made it back on the 3-4 month sea voyages to be grown in Europe. In 1701 Commelin illustrates plants found by people working for the Dutch East India company, including one labelled Aloe Americana ex vera cruce foliis angustioribus minus glaucis. After 1753, and the introduction of the 'binomial system' of naming by Carl Linneaus, this species was more simply called Aloe rigida. Linnaeus described the genus Agave in 1753, separating the 'American Aloes' from the African Aloes.

Colin then flipped through lots of beautiful early illustrations of Agave from around the world, and examples of the variety of form found in the genus. French illustrator Redouté also illustrated agaves…

We twice heard that 'if you only grow one Agave grow this one' - Agave macroacantha with a grey leaf edged with vicious spines and tipped by a long black spine, and Agave victoriae-reginae which looks a lot like the agave photographed at the top of this blog (although I could only find out that it might look like that species but it's too 'open' and is probably a related species or cross...). [Late Press: I can confirm, courtesy of April Hamilton and Ian Hay, that the species photographed is indeed Agave victoriae-reginae! 6/10/10]

We were reminded that bats pollinate most species when they feed on the nectra and pollen, and that variegated forms are all the range with breeders.

Also quite the rage are the mangaves - pronounced man-garv-ees (i.e. like man-boobs or something similar). A mangave, or X Mangave, is a hybrid between a species of Agave section Manfreda (which some people have and do consider a distinct genus) and another Agave species. A popular one at the moment is X Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ which, like takes its blotches and spots from the Manfreda line.

Colin finished with images of agave 'from the Arts', mentioning publications by Besler (1613),  Munting (1696), Scarella (1710), Scheuchzer (1731) and Thornton (1804) as being beautiful but not particularly botanically accurate. There was a cartoon of 'Agave telegraphica’ from The Garden in 1871 which showed a flowering spike supporting telegraph lines…

He also mentioned, as a kind of prelude to Dan's talk, some uses of Agave: 

Sisal plantations in Madagascar, Brazil, east Africa, Mexico and Caribbean for rope. The fibres are extracted from the leaves with knives, then washed and dried

Alcoholic beverages go back to Aztecs. We saw an Agave tequilana plantation near the city of Tequila. The leaves are trimmed of the main 'trunk' just before flowering and the pineapple shaped structure (pina) roasted. A sugary liquid is extracted, fermented, distilled, and...drunk.

Agave nectar – actually the sweet juice from the pina. Not particularly nice but because it has lots of fructose rather than glucose it is considered good for diabetics.

The final pictures were of species discovered in the last few years and apparently there are likely to plenty more to come from Mexico which still has lots of unexplored areas. But to end this posting, some of the uses of cacti according to one of the two Vice-Presidents of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales, Dan Downie: 

Cochineal insects for red dye

A secure fence when grown on mass

To make furniture - from the ‘skeleton’ or wood of dead cacti

To induce hallucinations (Peyote; Lophophora williamsii)

To design a flag - the Republic of Mexico has cactus in mouth of a bird (must check this)

As fruit: e.g. Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), fruit pulp used for jelly and wine. Almost all fleshy fruits of cacti are edible, sometimes after cooking or drying.

As phonograph needles and fishhooks - the spines

Fish poison - Stenocereus gummosus crushed and thrown in water

Animal food - the spineless species

Poultice for wounds, as laxative, for range of diseases

Magical powers - some Mammillaria species...
Tattooing - juices mixed with charcoal

Candle making – mixed with tallow

Pillow filling - wool from some species, not the spines...


Chewing Gum

Hair brushes

Mosquito control – liquid spread over ponds

Sewing needles.


Water clarification – fleshy stem mucilage added to muddy water.

And finally, as a place for wild animals to seek sanctuary from preditors. At least that's what Dan said and illustrated.

As always, the real master of ceremonies was Ian Hay, President of the aforementioned society for many more years (that's seven) than I've been Patron!


Anonymous said…
Hi Tim,
Great to meet up with you at Cacticon 2010.
You've queried the relationship between the Aztec goddess Mayahuel and agaves. I meant to mention this but clearly overlooked it!
An early Aztec image of Mayahuel from the Codex Borbonicus that I included early in my presentation, depicts Mayahuel holding a rope of Maguey (now sisal) with foaming pulque in her head-dress. Pulque, as I'm sure you, is a fermented but not distilled alcoholic beverage made from agaves. These intoxicating drinks were used by the aztecs in their religious ceremonies.
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks Colin, and apologies for any misinterpretations. It was a bit of a rough summary of your talk I'm afraid but I'm sure some readers will be interested in various of the facts and stories.
Good to meet you and look forward to crossing paths sometime again soon.