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The Century Plant

This agave gives up its heart for us.

By E. Dan Klepper

Dig a pit (a palenque) about 3 feet deep, line the sides and bottom with rocks, and build a fire in it. While the flames turn to coals, unearth a mature maguey, also called the century plant, just as it begins to bloom. Then start cutting away the long fibrous leaves. This will eventually reveal the heart, or la pia (the “pineapple”) of the plant. To harvest this delicate morsel, one must first negotiate the century plant’s skin-shredding spines and dangerously sharp, dagger-like leaf tips. But just as in love’s maundering, painful obstacles that require delicate navigation often confound the path to nature’s heart as well. Once your leaf peeling is complete, you may, if you wish, bestow a traditional blessing upon la pia and those who will benefit from its bounty. Then place the heart in the pit, cover it with damp gramma grass and fill in the pit with soil. Wait a few days, then open the pit, extract la pia and share its sweet flavor with your own heart’s passion.The century plant is no stranger to requiting desires. It has been serving hearts to the hungry and mending the humble rifts in life (such as unraveled shoes, torn clothing and other simple goods) with its strong, resilient fiber for 1,000 years or more. It is soap, rope and paper, roofing material, fodder, dye and drink. It is stomach medicine and hair tonic and relief from syphilis — the scourge of lovers past. It steadies the walk and mends fences and can be made musical or to cause death. It has been all of these things at one time or another and even to this day it is the sweet thickness of pulque, the straw-colored tequila and the bitterness of mescal.

In its humble servitude the plant shares the genus name agave, meaning “noble,” with a host of species, subspecies and varieties. Remarkably, all of them are members of an order of another of life’s love plants: the lily. Agaves are full of the fickle notions inherent in love-struck botanicals — changing their minds, hybridizing, morphing and causing general confusion among botanists. They answer to many names such as Arizonica, Arkansana and Neomexicana. There are the slim-footed, the thorn-crested and the beaked. Some are giant, smooth, blue, or just plain plains. The Rattlesnake Master, Basketgrass, and Devil’s Shoestring know exactly who they are. Not quite so true with the False.

Like love life, the lives of the agaves are filled with mystery and abandonment. Many agave specimens, gathered a few centuries ago by early explorers of the Americas, now reside in European botanical collections. Some of them have never been found in their natural settings again since they were first collected, and their original locations are thus lost to the world. Occasionally some confound scientists further by going extinct.

Our own agave, the reliable century plant, abounds and is widely cultivated throughout Texas and the world. The giant Americana flourishes across the Edwards Plateau and South Texas Plains and the state’s own special species, the Chisos Agave, occurs along the higher elevations of the Trans-Pecos. Yet, just as the phrase “forever yours” suggests doubt even in its conviction, the name “century plant” conceals loss within its deception. In reality, this agave rarely grows beyond a decade or two, then blooms only once and dies away.

But its final blush, a magnificent inflorescence as thick as Cupid’s thigh, delivers all that la pia promises. Calling on its entire reserve, the plant proffers a giant, asparagus-like stalk, elongating it up to an inch an hour and 16 inches a day. Reaching up to 20 feet in height, the tumescence then explodes in thick, nectar-loaded flats of blooms. The flowers’ saturated yellow hue acts as a beacon to all creatures that love the savory taste of the desert’s elixir. Songbirds and hummingbirds and all manner of butterflies, beetles and bees make a meal of the bloom’s syrup. In the evening, scarlet-ribbed Sphinx moths and the unique Mexican long-nosed bat come to feed upon the pia nectar. The blossoming signals a torrid display of nature’s magnitude, leaving tiny, sprouting pups scattered about the ground and the dead and drying stalk, favored by birds and beasts that nest and roost in its remains.

A fabric made from agave leaves is said to “… have been more soft and beautiful than parchment,” comprised the cloak of Juan Diego, a poor but loyal devotee of the Catholic Church. Diego and his fellow indigenous people of 16th-century Mexico used the fibers of the century plant to make their cloak-like coverings, called tilmas, that they wore on cool mornings.

One day in 1531, while taking his daily walk to church, Diego had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who spoke to him and told him to gather flowers from a nearby hilltop. Diego complied, filling his agave tilma with blooming roses that “… were very fragrant and covered with dewdrops of the night which resembled precious pearls.” As instructed, Diego carried the rose-filled tilma to his bishop. Upon unfolding the cloak and scattering the flowers across the ground, an exquisite painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared across the tilma where the roses had been resting against the fibers. The appearance of the image was declared a miracle by the church. Five centuries later, in July 2002, Diego was canonized, and the century-plant tilma, with its remarkable image, fresh and brilliant as if it had just appeared, resides today in a shrine in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico City.

“I am a nobody,” Diego said to the Virgin Mary in the language of pure love’s devotion. “I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf.” It is a voice that can be shared by two humble servants: one of heaven and the other, a simple agave, here on earth.

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