In April and May, thick maroon shafts grow from the wild hearts of the Agave, plump and erotic. The plant resembles a giant artichoke. Agave stalks can grow as fast as two-to-three inches a day and as high as fourteen to sixteen feet.
During May, and early June, the shaft of the agave sends out horizontal stalks that hold blooming candelabras on each end, with dozens of little candles of yellow and red flames on each. You can see hundreds of flowering agave about one mile out of Jerome on Perkinsville Road in the limestone formations above the Gold King Mine and many dozens in the same formations as you drive up to Jerome from Clarkdale on Highway 89A just as you near Jerome.
You’ll also see the agave’s cactus companions: yellow flowering prickly pear cactus and carmine flowers of the hedgehog cactus. It’s been a bonanza year! The desert is blooming.
The Agave flowers only once every twenty to twenty-five years (longer in colder climates) and then dies, leaving the brown withered central stalk and candelabras, the candles of flame now upright stems. New plants grow from the root systems.
Some species of agaves are also called century plants, even though they flower much sooner than once every hundred years.
In the Verde Valley, the agave is officially called Agave parryi. The genus ‘Agave’ is from the Greek word ‘agavos’ for admirable, noble, splendid and refers to its noble appearance. The genus ‘parryi’ honors the botanist Charles C. Parry (1823-1890), a highly respected doctor, explorer and naturalist, who was highly acclaimed as a collector of botanical plants.)
The Agave Parryi is not Native to the Verde Valley
The Agave parryi is a cultivar that was imported and planted by the Sinagua (700 to 1125 A.D.) to complement the planting of squash, corn and beans, flax and cotton. The agave plants were brought up from Southern Arizona. The methods of planting and irrigation were learned from their Hohokam neighbors.
The Sinagua planted the agave on the outskirts of gardens by making a large hollow in the soil, planting it, then filling the hollow with rocks. The method had two beneficial effects: it helped retain water and stopped rodents from digging them up. The agave was also planted in the rocky, fast draining, south facing hills surrounding large gardens in such places as Cow Flats (near Henderson Ranch) and Beaver Flat.
The Sinagua and the Yavapai that migrated into the Verde Valley from the West around 1600 dug up the agave and roasted the heartas one of their staple foods. They dug up the agave when the stalk was ten or twelve inches high and the outer leaves green and fleshy. This ensured that maximum plant sugars are concentrated in the crown, making for a sweeter, juicier agave heart once cooked.
According to an account written by William H. Corbusier, an assistant surgeon with the US Army stationed on the Rio Verde Reservation from 1872 to 1875, wrote about the method used by the Yavapai as noted by Corbusier.
“When a supply if it is needed, the women go in charge of some of the men, or the whole party moves to the mescal fields, and sufficient is cut and baked to last several weeks. They choose those plants which are at least eighteen inches highand cut them close to the ground, then trim off projecting ends of the leaves, so that each plant forms a large ball composed of the thick bases of the leaves, and the crown on which they are crowded.They then carry them in their baskets to a suitable spot in a ravine or a canon where they dig a pit, or if an old one be in the neighborhood, as is frequently the case, they resort to it. The earth taken out is banked up to deepen the pit, which varies from, the size varying from three to ten feet in diameter, and from two to four feet deep, according to the number in the party. A large fire is built in it, on which are thrown basketfuls of stones. When these are hot, the mescal is piled on them in the form of a pyramid and covered with grass and earth. It is allowed to remain undisturbed about forty-eight hours, the women watching the pit in order to repair occasional breaks in the covering. When the mescal is baked, the pit is opened, and each woman takes out her own which she recognizes by her private mark. The plants in baking shrink and turn brown. The fibres [sic], which are coarse in the leaves and fine in the crown, receptacle, become tougher, but the fleshy part is converted into a sweet juicy pulp. Those which are not to be used soon are torn to pieces and spread on sticks in large cakes, which, when dry, are folded up for convenience in carrying. When kept for some time, the mescal becomes hard and tough, and requires soaking in water before it can be eaten. Mescal-water, made by dissolving the pulp in water, is a favorite beverage, and constitutes the exclusive diet of the sick. It frequently acts as a purge, and when dysentery or diarrhea exists often aggravates the disease. If the plant is not well cooked, or if too young, it produces the same effect.” (American Antiquarian, Volume 8, pages 276-84 and 325-39)
There is no evidence that the Agave parryi was used by the Sinagua or the Yavapai to brew mescal.
The leaves yield a very strong fiber from which baskets and sandals can be woven; the thorns can be used for needles and pins; and soap can be made from the leaves.
Musicians in Jerome sometimes make didgeridoos from the dried-up stalk. This wind instrument produces a deep, vibrating drone.
My friend Katie Lee likes to cut down the stalk of a dead agave every year and decorate it as a Christmas tree.