Most species of agave, particularly those used for food and beverages, are hardy plants with thick roots and fleshy leaves. The leaves are sharp at the end and usually have serrated edges. The plants produce flowers on a straight stalk at the end of their lifetime. Shortly before the plant develops flowers, a sap known as metl, which is high in sugar, accumulates in the leaf shaft. This sap is a result of microbial or wild yeast activity, and is used as a fermented beverage known as pulque or mezcal. If trimmed in a certain way, one plant can produce around 2 liters of pulque a day for up to a month (Goncalves 1956 cited in Ratsch 1998, 45).
There are approximately 136 species in the genus Agave found in Mexico alone. Many of these species are significant ethnobotanically. The genus is indigenous to Mexico and Southwestern America. Agaves are succulents and can survive long periods without water. Some species do well in the desert, others in the rainforest (Ratsch 1998, 44).
TRADITIONAL USES: In Tehuacan, Mexico, roasted agave remains have been found dating back 8,000 years. This indicates that agave was an essential food source in prehistoric times. Certain species of agave were also used to prepare poisons for hunting and fishing for purposes of fishing and hunting (Bye et al. 1975).
Aztec historical records tell us that the fermented agave liquor pulque was first created after the Aztecs migrated to Central America around 1000 CE. The liquor was likely known to the other peoples of that region long before the Aztecs arrived. Pulque was considered very sacred by the Aztecs, and was used only during rituals, such as sacrificial celebrations. The beverage was used to make offerings to the gods, and was also consumed, mixed with Datura innoxia, by individuals who were about to have their hearts ripped out as ritual sacrifices. This blend was said to bring the victims peace and make them docile and calm. At present, however, Mexican agave is primarily used to produce tequila (Ratsch 1998, 44).
The Huichol people of the Sierra Madre region of Mexico often consume agave spirits during shamanic rituals, particularly peyote festivals. The psychoactive effects of the peyote suppress the effects of the alcohol, but this combination is nevertheless said to increase the power of the peyote significantly (Ratsch 1998, 46).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Agave juice ferments while it is still in the plant, and so may be harvested once it has already fermented, or may be harvested when fresh and fermented in a tightly sealed container. Pulque contains about 3-4% alcohol by volume. Various plants may be added to enhance or alter the psychoactive effects of the beverage, including peyote, acacia root, datura, and psilocybe mushrooms (Ratsch 1998, 45).
Boiled and mashed agave leaves or agave juice may be distilled to create agave spirits such as tequila and mescal. In Mexico, mescal liquor is often brewed with Cannabis sativa flowers, sugar, and chile pods to enhance the effects. Damiana is may be added to tequila as well. It is often said that the mescal worm, a small larva which feeds on the agave plant has psychoactive effects if eaten whole. This worm is thus often added to agave spirits. Two or three worms are said to be a psychoactive dosage (Walker & Walker 1994).
MEDICINAL USES: There are many uses for Agave in Mexican folk medicine. The leaves and juice are applied externally to treat open wounds, snake bites, toothache, venereal disease, and other inflammations of the tissues. Mescal, and the mescal worm are said to be powerful aphrodisiacs, and may be used to enhance the sex drive (Wolters 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 47).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Agave contains saponins, steroid saponins, large amounts of sugar, and vitamin C, among other components. GABA has been found in Agave americana. The effects of consuming pure pulque are similar to those of consuming other ancient fermented beverages such as palm wine and balche. However, it is said that pulque inebriation is clearer than intoxication with other alcoholic beverages. Pulque that has had psilocybe mushroom added is, of course, very visionary in effect, and images of snakes are said to appear regularly during the experience that results from consuming such a brew (Ratsch 1998, 47).
Bye, R.A., D. Burgess, and A. M. Trias. “Ethnobotany of the Western Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico. 1: Notes on the Genus Agave.” Botanical Museum Leaflets 24, no. 5 (1975): 85–112.
Lotter, Don. Pulque: Mexico’s unique and vanishing drink. 2004.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Walker & Walker. Tequila. San Fransisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.