Agave is a large genus of succulent plants that includes over 200 species. The New World native has been used as a source of food, fiber, and ornamentation for hundreds of years, and has spread far beyond its original range, thanks to migrating peoples who brought the plant with them. There are many modern uses for the plant, and it is widely cultivated in warm regions where it will not be exposed to frost. Many gardeners also plant it in low water gardens, as the succulent looks attractive and requires little water.
While many people think of agave as being a member of the cactus family, it is not. It is actually more closely related to lilies, along with other succulent plants. Typically, agave grows in the form of a rosette of thick, fleshy leaves that are often toothed and may also terminate with large spikes. Many species flower only once, putting up a tall stalk of aromatic flowers and then dying off. Since the plants tend to grow runners and offshoots, smaller plants are left behind after the parent dies.
The plant is extremely slow to mature, as is demonstrated by the case of the century plant, a very slow growing species that flowers intermittently. Many parts of the plant are highly useful, including the dense leaves to the often edible flowers. As a result, large plantations of specific species, such as blue agave, can be found in the warm regions of Mexico and the American Southwest.
The leaves of the agave can be beaten to make fiber, and they also generate a foamy material that is much like soap. The leaves can also be cooked to make a relatively bland but filling meal. The flower stalks are sweet when roasted, and one of the most commonly collected parts of the plant. With roasting and processing, a stalk can be turned into syrup, a natural substitute for sugar, or it can be fermented into liquor, such as tequila. The flowers are also often edible, and since each plant generates a large number of flowers, they can be a useful source of nutrition.
When used as an ornamental plant, agave can make a nice green addition to a low water garden in a warm or hot region. The slow growing plants can mature to a formidable size, which is why they are often used along highway medians and in other large landscaping schemes. The teeth and spines make it a less than friendly plant, but this can also be advantageous in landscaping, as it will keep unwanted human and animal visitors out.