Photo by David Bly
Agaves, also known as “century plants,” are easily recognized with stout spear-like leaves that grow from the center of a rosette. This rosette of leaves concentrates rainwater near the plant’s base, thus creating a mechanism for self-irrigation. Despite their name, most agaves bloom within 15-30 years. The plant puts all its energy into the flowering stalk, then dies the following season.
The fibrous leaves were used to make cloth, rope, needles (from the pointed tips) and thread. Baked in underground pits, the hearts (harvested just before flowering) were relished by Native peoples for their sugary sweetness and were also pounded into cakes that were dried for storage. Mexican tequila, has been made for centuries in central Mexico from fermented and distilled agave juice. The stalks are eaten by deer, squirrels, and many other animals, and the flower nectar is consumed by hummingbirds and bats in exchange for pollination.
During the lesser long-nosed bats’ presence in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from July to September, it depends almost exclusively on Palmer agave as a food source. Although it was once thought that Palmer’s agave needed the lesser long-nosed bat survive, more recent studies show that other animals and insects (bees, hummingbirds, orioles, hawkmoths, butterflies, and wasps) adequately pollinate these plants. The bats need the agaves more than the agaves need the bats because there is not mush else for them to forage on during late summer.