by Joe Hughes
The mention of our neighbor to the south typically conjures up images of sunny beaches, arid deserts and plateaus, a rich cultural history, delicious cuisine, and of course tequila. So, on a recent trip to Mexico City it came as no surprise to see the landscape dotted with agave, cacti, and various shrubs, growing ever more frequent as we slowly made our way out of the bustling city and toward Teotihuacan. It was here, at a well-established tourist outpost just outside of the ruins, that we were introduced to the many uses of the agave that can be found all over the area.
Most notably to us, agave is the main component in the production of tequila or mezcal. At Teotihuacan, visitors are able to enjoy a tasting tour through the various spirits that can be made from agave. We began by tasting pulque, a “non-distilled traditional alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of the [agave] sap known as aguamiel” (Escalante et al., 2008). This sweet, viscous, milky drink had a mild sugariness that was very pleasant, with the texture of a smoothie I had made in my blender at home. We then moved on to sampling some mezcal, a liquor that is much more similar to the tequila that many are familiar with, with one important distinction. Katie Robbins at Delish (Robbins, 2021) states that “while mezcal can be made from a blend of one of 250 types of [agave] to be classified as tequila, a bottle must be at least 51 percent blue agave (Agave tequilana).” Similarly to champagne, tequila must satisfy these certain conditions to be considered truly tequila, otherwise it is a mezcal. What better venue for this lesson than at the ruins of an ancient metropolis at 10:00 in the morning?
After a healthy amount of samples, our guides continued to explain that these herbs can provide many other products besides just spirits. The Maya and Aztecs, who lived across what is now Mexico, have been utilizing these plants for the past several thousand years to construct crude fabrics, papers, and tools that could be used for a multitude of purposes (Siegler, 2005).
Though there are many species of agave in cultivation, there are a few species (notably Agave sisalana [sisal] and A. fourcroydes [henequen]) that are cultivated specifically for their ability to produce long, durable fibers that can be made into a variety of useful textiles. These fibers are acquired by scraping away the upper layers of each large, rigid leaf and “hand stripping” these fibers out of the plant, in a process called decortication (Future Fibers, 2022). The fibers must then be dried and brushed before they can be processed into a textile for use by humans. Fibers achieved through this process can be used in a variety of different ways. Most simply, these fibers can be woven into a durable thread and used as is. In turn, this thread can be further manipulated into string or twine, as well as textiles for clothing and carpets, and is especially useful nowadays as a buffing cloth for steel (Future Fibers, 2022). At a shop just outside Teotihuacan, these fibers have been used to make a wide variety of souvenirs and trinkets, in a bit of a departure from its historic utilitarian purpose.
These plants can also provide other sorts of products from different methods of harvest. The sharp prickles that grow at the end of agave leaves can be used as a needle, in conjunction with the sisal thread, to sew together pieces of sisal textile. The uppermost layers of the leaves can be used as a sort of paper, once peeled off into a thin, flexible sheet. A paper can also be made by pressing the pulp of the agave plant, in a manner more similar to that of paper production with woody pulp.
These agave fibers played an important economic role across southern Mexico until the early 20th century, when the introduction of synthetic plastic fibers at a much lower cost caused demand to shift away from the naturally occurring sisal. The industry faced other challenges as the world around it globalized, with sisal production being brought to Brazil and East Africa in a bid to increase production and profits. These areas, though similar in climate, have since outpaced Mexico in sisal production (Vuorinne, Heiskanen, & Pellikka, 2021). This was achieved by straying slightly from the traditional methods of cultivation, harvesting, and processing used by the Maya and Aztec peoples, and utilizing technology that was unavailable a few centuries ago.
Efforts are being made to restore the historic levels of sisal production in Mexico, as well as globally, in a bid to combat the increased dependence on synthetically produced fibers. Through groups like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, emphasis is being placed on building sustainable production mechanisms that can satisfy global demand with a supply of natural sisal fiber.
Visiting this ancient city was a wonderful experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. If seeing an archaeological wonder up close, coupled with a lesson on agave-based alcohol aren’t enough, consider the knowledge you can gain on the importance of utilizing the natural resources we have been provided by this planet, as opposed to concocting synthetic stand-ins. This experience is evidence enough we still have more to learn from the many, many generations that came before us.
Photo Credits: 1) Agave sisalana cultivated at Cooktown Botanic Gardens (Lokal_Profil, via Wikimedia); 2) Bottle of pulque (Alejandro Linares Garcia, via Wikimedia); 3) A. sisalana U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium Specimen with extracted fibers included; 4) Blanket made from Agave fibers (J. Hughes); 5) Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan (J. Hughes)
Escalante, A., M. Giles-Gomez, G. Hernandez, M.S. Cordova-Aguilar, A. Lopez-Munguia, et al. 31 May 2008. Analysis of bacterial community during the fermentation of pulque, a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage, using a polyphasic approach. International Journal of Food Microbiology 124:126-134. Accessed October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168160508001244
Future Fibers: Sisal (Internet) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed October 4, 2022. Available from: https://www.fao.org/economic/futurefibres/fibres/sisal/en/
Robbins, Katie. 2021. There’s only one kind of mezcal you’ll find worms in. Delish. Accessed October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.delish.com/cooking/news/a38585/waiter-theres-no-worm-in-my-tequila/
Siegler, David S. April 2005. Fibers from plants. University of Illinois, Urbana. Department of Plant Biology. Accessed October 4, 2022. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20130804031742/http://www.life.illinois.edu/ib/363/FIBERS.html
Vuorinne, I., J. Heiskanen, P.K.E. Pellikka. 12 January 2021. Assessing leaf biomass of Agave sisalana using Sentinel-2 vegetation indices. Remote Sens 13(2):233. Accessed October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/13/2/233
Joe Hughes is a graduate of The George Washington University (2021) and in his second year as an ORISE intern at the U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium. In his free time he enjoys traveling and exploring parks around Washington, D.C.