Blue agave is one of the common names for Agave tequilana, a plant that is cultivated in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. As the botanical name indicates, the plant is best-known as the main ingredient in making tequila, with Jalisco being the center of the Mexican tequila industry. Other common names for the blue agave include Weber’s blue, tequila agave and mezcal.
Although usually thought to be a cactus, Agave tequilana is a blue-green succulent that is a member of the lily family. Emerging from the ground as a spiky clump, the oval-shaped center is usually referred to as the heart. It weighs between 80 and 300 pounds when it is harvested for tequila production. Mature leaves are usually six to eight inches wide at the base, tapering to a sharp point. The leaves can reach lengths of more than six feet.
The blue agave is mainly cultivated for the tequila industry and is not known to grow in the wild. The plant thrives in the dry, mineral-rich soils found at higher elevations in a small area of Jalisco. Like most succulents, it naturally retains water in its fleshy leaves and is therefore very drought-tolerant. Outside of Mexico, blue agave is usually grown only in greenhouses or as a houseplant.
Like most agaves, the blue agave requires minimal care and attention. Watering should be thorough, but allow plants to dry out completely between irrigations. Fertilizer is not necessary and may harm the plant if given too liberally. The plants are very resistant to disease and have few insect problems other than mealy bugs. If detected early, the bugs can usually be eliminated with horticultural soap.
Blue agave plants can be propagated by cuttings, although the process is slow. Leaves should be cut and dried for 12 months before planting in a very well-drained potting medium. Commercial producers propagate the plants using root rhizomes, which are planted just before the rainy season. Breeding plants are usually three to five years old and can provide one or two rhizomes annually.
In Mexico, the heart of the blue agave is known as the pina, from which the popular pina colada drink gets its name. Tequila is made by harvesting the hearts of the blue agave, which are then roasted and crushed. On average it takes about 10 years from planting until the heart of the Agave tequilana reaches maturity. Once harvested, the ground must be replanted with a new crop for tequila 10 years down the road.