Century Plant, Agave
Agave utahensis var. utahensis, A. utahensis ssp. kaibabensis, A. phillipsiana
he century plant (Agave spp.) has long since captured the human imagination and is one of the most unique plants to grace the precipitous slopes of the Grand Canyon. The common name, century plant, is a misnomer, as it takes twwenty to forty or more years for them to send up a towering Dr. Seuss-like flowering stalk. Following this dramatic endeavor, the plant dies. Even when plants are not in bloom it is difficult not to admire the stiff, succulent leaves spiraling from the center of a rosette, fanning outward in perfect symmetry. The woody, sometimes burgundy-tinged spines arise from the leaf margins and each leaf bears the shadowy imprint of the previous layer. These spines are distinctly different from the marginal fibers found on yucca species.
Grand Canyon is home to three different century plants. Utah century plant (Agave utahensis) is the most common and is represented in Grand Canyon by two subspecies: Utah century plant (A. utahensis ssp. utahensis) and Kaibab century plant (A. utahensis ssp. kaibabensis). Kaibab century plant is the larger of the two and rarely produces offsets, thus it typically grows as a single plant. It grows large yellow-flowered panicles on flowering stalks that are up to three feet longer than those of Utah century plant. In Grand Canyon along the river, Kaibab century plant occurs from Marble Canyon downstream to Kanab Canyon. It prefers calcareous or sandstone outcrops and is found to elevations of 8200 feet.
Utah century plant is a smaller, fewer-leaved version that produces numerous offsets arranged in clumps and has a shorter flowering stalk (to 14 feet tall). It grows to 4600 feet on open, rocky, usually limestone slopes in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. In Grand Canyon, plants are commonly found from the South Bass area downstream to Grand Wash Cliffs. Plants exhibiting characteristics of both species appear where the two types overlap in distribution, suggesting that hybrids occur.
A third, and recently discovered species, the Grand Canyon century plant (A. phillipsiana), is known only from a handful of sites within Grand Canyon and is very distinct from the other agaves native to the Colorado Plateau region. Its gray-green arching leaves grow to nearly twice the length of the Utah century plant. In September, the Grand Canyon century plant produces a towering flower stalk dappled with creamy blossoms on long, widely spaced lateral branches.
The Grand Canyon century plant is a bit of an unfolding mystery to botanists, as it is an ancient, living cultivar. These remarkable plants are found on terraces within major tributaries, the majority in association with archaeological features such as roasting pits. Recent research provides evidence that the Grand Canyon century plant was a cultivated crop, introduced and farmed by pre-Columbian people. Molecular tests reveal the plant’s closest relatives may reside in southern Arizona or northern Mexico and Pueblo inhabitants probably acquired the plants found in Grand Canyon via trade with Mexico peoples. Agaves produce genetic clones, or pups, through underground stems or rhizomes, making these plants ripe for cultivation. Early dwellers of Grand Canyon and other regions in the Southwest and Mexico utilized century plants for food, fiber (for hairbrushes, sandals, blankets, and mats), and medicine, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Continuing today, agave roasting begins with the harvest of plants just prior to the emergence of the flower stalk, when the plant’s core is engorged with sugars. A pit up to three feet deep and twelve feet wide is excavated then layered with fire heated stones and green or wet vegetation. The agave “heads” are placed inside, covered with more vegetation and dirt, and then cooked for two to three days. The most treasured part is the innermost non-fibrous core, which is tender and sweet. The outer, fibrous sections are pounded out, sometimes coated in reserved juices and dried, serving as a future fruit snack. Roasted agaves taste like a very sweet dried papaya or like molasses, making them glorious sweet treats for pre-historic desert dwellers.
The Hualapai method of preparing agave is slightly different and includes the use of beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), cattail (Typha spp.), and barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus var. eastwoodiae). Fortunately, the Hualapai elders still teach the youth how to prepare the agave, resulting in a strong living tradition.
Researched by Wendy Hodgson