Maguey—a Plant with Many Uses
By “Awake!” correspondent in Mexico
TRAVELING through central Mexico, one will see fields sown in long straight rows with rather large, but relatively low-growing plants. These are generally known in other places as agave plants, but in Mexico they are called maguey.
Some partially informed travelers may think of the maguey only as the source of popular beverages. They may know that pulque, a local Mexican drink, and the internationally known tequila are made from the juices of the maguey. But maguey has many other uses. In fact, thousands of people in Mexico are employed in making products from these remarkable plants.
Appearance and Growth
The maguey has a short, bulky stem, making it appear as though the leaves sprout right from the root. The green-gray leaves are thick and fleshy, and cluster about the base of the plant. However, they may reach nine feet in length and a foot in width! The leaves are tipped with a sharp black thorn, and have thorny edges.
The maguey grows very slowly. Each year more leaves form, and more and more food is stored in them. After about twenty or thirty years, a central stalk sprouts upward, reaching twenty feet or more in the air in just a few days! This stalk blossoms with clusters of yellowish flowers. And then, after flowering only once in its lifetime, the plant dies.
Cultivation of the maguey is not of recent origin. The Aztec Indians of Mexico hundreds of years ago grew the plant for the drink they made from its juices, as well as for its fiber, which they used in weaving. The maguey grows well in a climate of about 64° to 73° F. and at an altitude of about 3,500 to 6,500 feet. Thus it prospers in central Mexico, not far from Mexico City.
Pulque, Popular Drink of Mexico
Pulque is made from varieties of the maguey plant. This whitish milky beverage is produced and consumed principally in the central part of Mexico, so that few people outside the country even know about it. Because its popularity is limited to Mexico, there is the saying, “More Mexican than pulque,” referring to something just of the country.
There has been little change in the making of pulque from the way that the Aztecs did it centuries ago. When the maguey plant begins to send up its tremendous flower stalk, there is a rush of sugary sap to the stalk. By cutting away the bud before it emerges and cutting out a cavity in the center of the plant, this light sap, called agua miel, can be collected. It is said that one plant yielded 265 gallons of sap!
In the making of pulque, the sugary sap is allowed to undergo fermentation. When this liquid becomes thick, milky and more or less ropy, as the sugars change into alcohol, the product is sold as pulque. In 1521 the Spaniards, hearing the Indian name for this fermented drink, “Poliuhqui” (decomposed), pronounced it “pulque,” and the name has stuck. Some persons consider the odor and consistency of pulque objectionable, but the drink, nevertheless, has maintained its popularity.
The Indians used pulque as an ingredient of different medicines. Even today the beverage is known to have many healthful qualities, especially if it is used in moderation. It contains a good portion of proteins, B-complex vitamins, vitamin C and mineral salts. Basically the same nourishing elements are found in pulque as exist in milk and meat.
In the Mexican states of Mexico and Hidalgo the use of pulque is very common; children even drink it from infancy. However, if it is not used moderately, the results can be harmful. Excessive use may even produce mental dullness and swelling of the face and extremities. Indicative of the ill effects that it can have is the saying some Mexicans have for pulque, namely: “The white nectar of black dreams.”
Tequila and Mescal
An even more commonly used drink made from maguey is tequila. The production of tequila is a big industry in Mexico. Over eight million gallons are produced annually, about 10 percent of which is exported. Tequila is made from the blue maguey.
In order to obtain tequila, the blue maguey must reach maturity, which takes from six to thirteen years. The leaves are then cut away until the central stem is hollowed out like a pineapple-shaped bowl in which the sap collects. This sap is taken to the factory, where it is allowed to ferment, and then, by a distillation process, a liquor of a light transparent color is obtained. This is very strong, and, if it is not used in moderation, it can produce harmful effects.
Mescal is another beverage produced by distillation of the juices of the maguey plant. It is of a yellowish color and is also a powerful alcoholic drink that is used wisely only in moderation. Interestingly, some kinds of mescal are sold with a worm inside the bottle. These worms, which live in maguey plants, are also used as a food by some Mexicans.
Other Products of the Maguey
Other products made from the maguey plant include various kinds of syrups. One of them is amber in color, light and transparent, and of exquisite flavor. It is considered of therapeutic value because of its high content of vitamins and protein.
An industrial alcohol and an excellent-quality vinegar is also obtained from maguey. So, too, is a gum, which is similar to gum arabic, and a synthetic wood. Strong fibers, called “istle,” obtained from the leaves of the maguey, are used in making ropes of excellent quality. And maguey is also used as forage for cattle.
Maguey is cultivated by the humble people of Mexico, who benefit from it in many ways. They burn it for fuel, and the green or dried leaves are used to wrap tasty native dishes. Also, the dried leaves serve to roof adobe houses. The Mexican government, early in the 1960’s, formed the Maguey Patronage, the purpose of which is to study and plan for greater utilization of the plant and its products, with the aim of improving the living standards of maguey workers.
So, as is true of many other things that the earth produces, the maguey is a plant that can be used in a variety of ways for man’s benefit.