The flowering of this plant used to be considered as a very rare occurrence, and as not taking place till it attained the age of one hundred years; but the specimens being now numerous the delay in flowering is found not to be fact. Its interest as a marvel has, consequently, fallen off; but the uses of the plant still continue.
The agave bears some resemblance to the pine-apple in its leaves, only they are thicker, stiffer, and less numerous; but it produces no edible fruit. The outside leaves stand round in a star, or crown , and the middle consists of a thick spire of leaves, so firmly twisted together, that the edges of the one impress the others with a seal. The points are armed with very strong spines; so that the plant is truly formidable, and answers well for hedges, only it occupies considerable breadth.
The scape, or flowering-stem, rises from the centre of the tuft of leaves; it is smooth and green, and the branches that bear the individual clusters of flowers come off very gracefully in double curves, which have the bend downward near the stalk, and upward near the flowers. The appearance is not unlike that of a majestic candlestick, with successive branches, for a great portion of its height; and tall as the stem is, the form of the leaves gives it the appearance of great stability. The plant is a native of tropical America but it abounds in the dry and warm places of the south of Europe, along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean, and especially in the south of Portugal, and in the dry districts on the confines of Portugal and Spain.
Like most plants which grow in very hot and dry places, the rind or epidermis of the leaves resists powerfully the action of heat, so that the interior of the leaves is very juicy. The juice contains a good deal both of alkali and oil (the ingredients of which soap is composed,) so that in some places of the peninsula, it is used as a substitute for soap; the pulp forming a lather with water. Cattle are also fed on the sliced or bruised leaves, at those seasons when the pastures are burnt up by the drought. So that it is a useful plant even in those parts of Europe where the vegetation of more temperate climes is apt to fail.
In Mexico, it is far more useful; and is, indeed, one of the most valuable products of the soil, answering some of the purposes which are answered by rye in the north of Europe, barley in the middle latitudes, and the vine toward the south. The wines and spirits of the country are prepared from it; and though their flavor is not much relished by Europeans, they are in high estimation with the natives.
When the leaves have come to their full size, and the flower stalk is about to spring up, the heart of the plant is scooped out, and the outside left in the form of a cup. That cup soon fills with the juice, which is removed successively, till no more can be obtained; and the remaining leaves, as well as those that are cut out, are dried for fuel. The juice is set to ferment; and when it has undergone that process, it is the Pulqué, or Mexican beer. It soon gets acid, and even rancid, from the quantity of oil; but the natives relish it. When recently made, it is said to be much more palatable; and probably it does not become unpleasant sooner than the weak and imperfectly fined malt liquors of this country do in the hot season.
The juice of the Agave is also distilled into an ardent and intoxicating spirit, called Mercal, or Vino Mercal, in which the inconsiderate indulge to the same excess as they do in spirits from grain, potatoes, beet-root, and other vegetables in Europe The people of all countries are too fond of preparing such beverages; and the natives of India lay the palm trees under contribution for their at-rack , and the hemp, for that still more intoxicating and pernicious liquid which they call Bang.
The fibres of the Agave are tough and straight, and they are sometimes used as cords; but the proper cordage of the tropical Americans is not made from them; but from the fibres of some of the wild Bromelias; or from the coire, or fibres, which surround the shell of the cocoanut.