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What Is a Maguey?

Sap from the maguey is sometimes used to treat stomach cramps.
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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 10 July 2014
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Maguey, scientificifically named Agave americana, is a perennial plant indigenous to regions in Mexico, South Africa, and Australia. It belongs to the genus Agave, and its species are known for having edible flowers, stalks, and sap, in addition to thick and succulent foliage similar to aloe vera. This plant is recognized for its medicinal and commercial value, especially in Mexico where it was first discovered during the Aztec period. The maguey is known by other names, such as century plant and American aloe.

The stem of a maguey is hard, bulky, and almost unnoticeable because it is extremely short, creating an appearance that its elongated fleshy leaves seem to shoot directly from the roots. These leaves have spiny margins and can reach lengths of 6 feet (1.8 m) or more. Yellow-green edges surround the plant’s predominantly gray-green leaves, which are arranged in a rosette formation. A fully matured maguey eventually grows a central stalk that can reach up to 20 feet (6 m), followed by a cluster of yellow flowers that sprout only once throughout the plant’s life, a sign that the plant is about to expire.

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Most parts of the maguey provide numerous uses for medicine, textile production, and alcoholic beverages. Sap from the stalk of cut flower bulbs is fermented and made into pulque, a white-colored alcoholic drink used for traditional rituals and treating ailments like stomach cramps and wound infection. Mezcal, a commercial alcoholic drink, is also made from the sap of 12-year old maguey leaves. In addition to this, dried fibrous leaves of this plant can also be manufactured into a piteado, a form of traditional Mexican belt with intricate details sown into a leather base.

Rock and cactus gardens can make use of the maguey’s adaptive properties and aloe-like appearance. These fiberous plants are drought-tolerant and sun-loving. They are also recognized for being rapid growers, bearing multiple leaves every week. The average lifespan for these plants is around 10 years. Depending heavily on their environment, these plants can last up to 30 years in favorable conditions.

Despite having edible leaves, sap, and flowers, a skin irritation known as purpuric agave dermatitis can be acquired from direct contact with the spines on maguey leaves. Lesions and rashes are the common symptoms of this condition. The spine on the tip of the leaves can pierce the skin, sometimes reaching the bones. In the early 1900s, these very sharp spines were sometimes used as sewing needles.

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