For drama and hardiness in warm climates, agave is hard to beat. The signature plant of the Sonoran Desert, agave grows very slowly and many species reach truly gigantic size and height. Agave is a succulent and includes close to 150 species with varied sizes and shades of leaf colors.
Agave grows in bold and very symmetrical rounded clumps, called rosettes. The agave americana, or century plant, has blue-green still leaves with treacherous spines and can grow up to 40 feet tall, with leaves over two feet long. Agave attenuate has soft leaves in gray-green with no spines whatsoever--its leaves are two and one-half feet across and it grows up to five feet tall. Agave victoriae-reginae is smaller still, with wide dark green leaves with white lines leaves about six inches long. All agaves flower on tall stalks only after 8 to 20 years.
Agave is the most widely-seen plant in the desert regions of the Southwest and Florida and also appears in Mexico, Central American and parts of South America. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum description of agave points out that "40 of the 150 North American species occur in the Sonoran Desert region."
Agave prefers semiarid environments and you frequently see the plants on well-drained slopes with poor soil. However, some species, such as agave-attenuata which is frequently grown as a potted plant, do best in rich soil with ample water. Agave propagates by distributing seeds through the wind or by leaving behind suckers when the main plant dies. Insects, some bats and hummingbirds are the main pollinators for agave.
According to experts at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Native Americans used and continue to use agave for "food, fences, rope, medicine, and liquor. The stem and leaf base of the agave are fermented and produce mescal and tequila while the heart, or head, of the plants, is pit-baked for many hours and eaten at fiestas. People also drink extracted agave juice both in a fresh drink called honey-water and in a fermented drink.
Agave nectar comes from processing juice from the agave in a way that is similar to the processing of corn syrup. Some health authorities and health food stores promote agave nectar as a more healthful alternative to sugar because ounce for ounce it has far less calories than sugar. Others are skeptical of the healthy claims for agave nectar and believe that it poses the same dangers as high fructose corn syrup.