The agave plant thrives in the rocky, semi-arid hills of Mexico. Soft fleshy leaves surround a pineapple-shaped heart containing a sweet, sticky juice. A sacred plant to the ancient Mexicans, nearly every fiber of the agave was used as food, medicine or fiber. Today agave continues to be a major crop throughout Mexico.
Fermented from the juices of the agave, mezcal is a strong alcoholic drink created by distillation of the agave plant. The best-known variety of this spirit is tequila. Prized for its smoothness, the juice of the Weber blue agave is twice distilled to create the spirit. The production of tequila is done in strict compliance with regulations put forth by the Mexican government.
The nectar of the agave is almost 90 percent fructose (but with a low glycemic level) and is gaining popularity as an alternative to sugar. Different from crystalline fructose, which comes from corn, the agave fructose is used and sold in its natural form. A richer, sweeter flavor is found in the thicker syrups.
The leaves of several agave species yield fiber that has been used in making twine, rope and dartboards. Fabrics are made from the fibers. They come in several varieties, with sisal fiber from the Agave sisalana being the strongest. The plant fibers are thick and strong and can be used as thread in a survival situation with the plant's sharp quills making excellent sewing needles.
Agave leaf tea is used to treat constipation and excess gas, while agave root tea is taken to treat arthritic joints. The plant contains saponins and fructans, which have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Agave is often found in medicines used to treat cuts and burns. Recent studies at the University of Guadalajara show that the fructans founding the syrup are able to carry drugs to treat colon diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease.
Agave juice from several of the species can cause contact dermatitis, producing reddening and blistering for up to two weeks with episodes of itching recurring up to a year. The needles on the end of the plant are razor sharp and can cause serious bruising if they pierce skin. Care is advised around this plant.