Native N American crops

Adam Fikso
Fri, 19 Mar 2010 13:58:47 PDT
Not to mention nopalitos-- (Opuntia species)

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Leo A. Martin" <>
To: <>
Sent: Friday, March 19, 2010 3:42 PM
Subject: Re: [pbs] Native N American crops

>I think Jim Shields' original phrase was "major agricultural crops" which
> implies an effort to cultivate them. People think of corn, beans, chiles
> (capsicum) and squash here in the Southwest but research by Wendy Hodgson
> at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and others, strongly suggests
> various Agave cultivars/species were planted (not harvested from the wild)
> for food. Search on Wendy's name for a link to her fantastic book _Food
> Plants of the Sonoran Desert_, which includes some bulbs.
> Several Agave species are known only from ridges overlooking floodplains,
> immediately adjacent to building ruins. These species share several
> characteristics eminently suitable for food crops: they bloom early for
> Agave, usually in less than 10 years; they are small to medium sized
> plants; they have fewer marginal teeth than wild plants, thus easier to
> manage; they are very sweet and delicious when cooked; they offset
> profusely and usually produce tens of thousands of small plantlets called
> bulbils on the inflorescence rather than fruits, thus permitting a more
> rapid harvest cycle.
> The floodplains supported the wetter crops while the Agave grew without
> irrigation above them. Rain is sporadic here, and some years there is not
> enough to support corn, beans and squash production. In a good-sized
> population some individual Agave plants will bloom each year without
> regard to the rain. The Agave fields at the sites studied are large enough
> to have provided most of the calories for the people who lived at the
> sites.
> These localities are often widely dispersed and one species (whose name
> escapes me right now) is known only from two sites in northern Arizona and
> one in Mexico, all three adjacent to ruins. Some Agave are too stringy,
> too sour, or too bad-tasting to eat; these are never found in similar
> sites. The stringy ones are now cultivated worldwide for fiber, but
> originated in Mexico. There are at least a dozen different Agave, some
> undescribed, from these human associated localities.
> Agave are harvested just as they prepare to bloom, when there is a
> maxiumum of starch in the stem. The leaves are trimmed off and the
> remaining stem roasted in a rock-lined pit for 3 days. After removal and
> cooling the stem is sliced and eaten or dried for storage. The starch
> mostly turns to sugar.
> I have eaten roasted Agave potatorum. It was sweeter than most any fudge I
> have eaten in my life. This species is still wild-harvested rather than
> cultivated because it does not offset and does not produce bulbils. It
> must be grown from seed, a lengthy undertaking. In central Mexico is
> fermented and distilled into the liquor mezcal.
> If you are driving through central-southern Mexico and see a mezcal stand
> at the side of the road, by all means stop and visit. It will feature a
> shade structure housing the fermenting tank and still, and a tilted,
> curbed, stone-paved threshing station with grinding wheel where a burro is
> yoked to the grinding wheel and turns in circles to crush the cooked Agave
> stems, whose juice runs through a break in the curb into a vessel. The
> proprietor will be happy to show you how he makes the liquor, offer you
> substantial samples, and sell some to you. There is good mezcal and there
> is really bad mezcal. Caveat emptor.
> Tequila is made from cultivated A. tequilana ("the blue agave"), distilled
> only in the state of Jalisco. Distilled elsewhere it is called mezcal. It
> may be grown anywhere and much of it is now grown in other Mexican states.
> A. tequilana is now considered a variety of A. angustifolia, which is by
> far the most widely dispersed Agave species in the wild, throughout
> Mexico. All subspecies offsets profusely and produce bulbils rather than
> fruits. Vast fields are planted with bulbils to be harvested 3-5 years
> later for liquor production.
> Agave murpheyi is one of the Arizona food agaves. It is extremely rare in
> the wild but is a very common Phoenix landscape plant. It offsets
> profusely, produces bulbils rather than fruits, is small for an Agave and
> tolerates overnight temperatures down to 10 Fahrenheit / -12C if grown on
> well-drained soil. I don't think it would do well in a freezing wet winter
> but then I haven't tried it. Agaves are great in pots. My plant has many
> dozen small offsets (under 3" tall and wide.) Search on it to find some
> pictures. If Dell would accept them and if any of you would like me to
> send some for the BX, let me know. They are not bulbs, though.
> I grow Agave tequilana too. When it flowers and sets bulbils I'll offer
> those to the BX too.
> Leo Martin
> Phoenix Arizona USA
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