Schooner Roseway, St. Croix, USVI
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View of Buck Island from East End, St. Croix, USVI

Plants - Century

Scientific & Common Names:

Agave americanacommon names century plant, maguey, or American aloe

Native to:

 MexicoArizona, and Texas 


Although it is called the century plant, it typically lives only 10 to 30 years. It has a spread of about 6 to 10 feet with gray-green leaves of 3 to 5 feet. The century plant resembles an aloe plant, except it is much larger and possesses sharper spines on the leaves’ edges and its pointed tip is sharp and strong. Until flowering, each plant has a single stem bud which produces leaves in clusters near the ground. When the plant has stored enough food, usually after a decade or so, the stem bud starts to grow – this is called ‘flowering’. At flowering, the main stem elongates rapidly to reach a total height of up to 25 to 30 feet. Flowers grow in lateral groups of tubular, 6-parted yellow clusters that look like upturned candelabras. When it is done, it dies and the whole plant dies with it, although a new plant usually sprouts from the roots. 

Practical Uses:

If the flower stem is cut without flowering, a sweet liquid called aguamiel (or honey water) gathers in the heart of the century plant which may be fermented to produce the drink called pulque. In the tequila-producing regions of Mexico, agaves (such as the century plant) are called mezcales and their nectar is distilled to make mezcal. Agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is a product of the century plant and is marketed as a natural form of sugar due to its high fructose content. The leaves of the century plant also yield fibers, known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, coarse cloth, and are used for embroidery of leather in a technique known as piteado.

Medicinal Uses:

The century plant yields a sap that is employed medicinally as a laxative and a diuretic. The juice, extracted from the leaves of the plant, is applied externally on bruises and is also ingested for treating a number of problems related to the gastric tract including constipation,  indigestion and dysentery. In addition, the juice of the leaves is also said to be an effective remedy for jaundice. Precursors of steroid hormones are also derived from the century plant leaves.