If ever there was a plant that had an identity crisis, it would be the Agave americana. This plant, commonly known by the nickname “century plant,” is also known by the incorrect name of American aloe. Century plants are native to Mexico, but are used as an ornamental plant all over the world and have become naturalized, growing wild in many places. This plant does not, however, live for a century or take 100 years to bloom.
The century plant’s leaves spread out from a central core, resembling a rosette. The plant, which actually takes an average of 15 years to flower, does not look like much until it comes time for it to bloom. A large stalk, 15 to 40 feet (4.572 to 12.192 meters) high and as thick as a tree trunk, shoots up from the middle of the plant and produces hundreds of clustered white or yellow flowers. The blooms remain on the plant for about a month before the stalk begins to wither and die, killing off the rest of the plant with it.
In its native Mexico, the stalks are cut to allow the retrieval of a sweet sap called aguamiel, or "honey water." This sap is then used in the production of a drink called pulque. Because pulque cannot be stored and the taste can be altered by many different factors very quickly, it is considered a regional specialty. Pulque, however, is also used in the production of an alcoholic beverage called mezcal. While Agave americana comes from the same family as the plant that produces tequila, that liquor is not produced by any product or byproduct of the century plant.
Most species produce underground shoots from which they produce several more plants. These shoots will then almost always sprout and grow to maturity, and then repeat the life cycle. Botanists have also come up with hybrids to make several different varieties of the plant that look and behave differently, but the essential life cycle remains the same.
More recently the century plant has come to the media's attention because of agave syrup, sometimes called agave nectar. It is marketed as a healthful sugar substitute. Other parts of the plant, including the fibrous leaves and stalks, are used in the production of rope and clothing, although these uses have become more rare as synthetic alternatives have become available. The leaves of the century plant can also be baked as a food source, although it is considered an acquired taste by many who have tried it.