Blooming Agave Parryi near Jerome AZ—Candles of Flame

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.

Young Agave parryi stalk

Photo of a young Agave stalk by Ivette Soler, who calls herself the ‘germinatrix,‘ (a play on the word gemination or spark of creation). She has written many delightful garden blogs. http://thegerminatrix.com

Agave Parryi near Jerome Arizona

Diane Sward Rapaport standing close to a very large Agave parryi stalk near Perkinsville Road about a mile from Jerome AZ. Photo by JoAnn Braheny.

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.

Candles of fire: Agave parryi in bloom.

The flowering candelabras of the Agave parryi hold dozens of candles of fire.

Agave parryi in bloom

The Agave parryi blooms once every twenty to twenty-five years.

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.

Roasting Agave

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.

Other Uses

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.

Didgeridoo of agave and zebra wood

Didgeridoo of agave and zebra wood designed by Jeff Lohr http://www.hallowedsounds.com

My friend Katie Lee likes to cut down the stalk of a dead agave every year and decorate it as a Christmas tree.

 

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6 thoughts on “Blooming Agave Parryi near Jerome AZ—Candles of Flame

  1. Diane,
    Wonderful post…and informative too! Bravo for continuing to write…and great photos too! (Thanks for the credit!)
    JoAnn Braheny

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  2. Good story – thanks. I love the plant and have one out blooming in the yard right now. An interesting note is that plant, over time is able to, essentially walk – when it falls over, it dumps it’s seeds 20-25 from the point of origin, establishing thick new colonies that repeat themselves. Additionally, there is no evidence that agave were not prepared into the various alchoholic forms, ad common sense would indicate that humans, the curious creatures that they are probably early on discovered the thrill of what we call today, tequila, bachanora and mescal. Eh Diane
    -remember bachanora?

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    • Oh boy do I remember bacanora on the Yaqui River trip. . and howling at the moon. Yes the agave is commonly used to make those fabulous liquors.. just that in the Verde Valley for both the Sinagua and Yavapai Indians, there was no evidence of its use in that manner.

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      • You know me – I will argue the semantic point here. There is absolutely no evidence they didn’t. I have put this very question to anthropologists at the Grand Canyon where agave was cultivated and over harvested. When pressed they concede, what there really is is no evidence either way. But once again, I will argue, it is likely in that we know the ancients roasted the agave pineapple in those times by the same methods our contemporaries do to this day. You have seen with your own the process of distillation on the Yaqui River in Mexico, as have I. What evidence would there be after 1,000 years – there is no special roasting pit for tequila vs other uses, would there be traces on the shards of weathered broken, cup scattered about village sites? The accident of fermentation and experimentation is to likely to have occurred – I’d say 100% – and we know that agave based drinks create potentially otherworldly, or almost psychedelic when consumed to excess, leading to at least a ceremonial use of the such drinks.

        This from a quick internet search on the history of tequila “The history of the liquor today known as Tequila began with the ancient tribe of Mexico, The Aztec’s, the Chichimecan’s, the Otomies, the Toltecan’s and the Nahuatl’s who drank beverages made from the Agave plant that is used to make Tequila. ”

        As a scholar of history you very well know that is accepted that the culture of the Soutwestern US and Central Mexico passed traditions back and forth for literally thousands of years. There are even Mexican style ball courts in the Verde Valley … so … I gotta say, I think those who want to sanitize history with “no tequila here” are way out of the ball-court.

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      • The evidence for the Yavapai is that no historian, including their own native historians, talk about roasting this species of agave for mescal or other alcohol. And though entopic visions of spirals, grids, circles, etc, are now interpreted as shamanic in Pueblan rock art and pottery, most archeologists argue that these visions come from eating mushrooms, peyote, etc. and not mescal. There is plenty of evidence that Southern native tribes roasted agave for mescal; and you argue well that there could have been cultural interchange on this level, but right now, I’ll stand firm on the Yavapai not roasting it for mescal, etc., and leave myself open to the Sinague perhaps doing so. (Maybe ‘entopic’ could be the ‘word of the day.’ It has specific meaning for the similarity throughout many cultures all over the world for the appearance of similar shapes, such as spirals, grids, circles, etc.)

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      • Okay – if you want to limit the discussion to the relative moderns, the Yavapai – then I would guess they would have an accurate memory of what came before in their lineage and if they say no we didn’t, I’ll accept that, but history of the use of the agave, it’s importation (and would be imported because it was useful) precedes the arrival of the Yavapai by a huge time span. When the Yavapai arrived in the Verde Valley which has been inhabited for I believe, 11,000 years the ancient pueblos were long abandoned and had crumbled into disrepair. This variety was planted around pueblos as well for more than harvesting, it was used as decoration and landscaping, erosion control and so on. Archeologists could only know what psychotropics were used by examining trash piles and ancient poo. “Oh look, there is some peyote in there” – peyote being a cactus and brought from Mexico northward – how could tequila recipes be far behind, especially since the cactus was brought here?
        I’m done. It was fun.

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