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Desert Diary


Early inhabitants of the Chihuahuan Desert spent innumerable hours finding, collecting, and preparing wild plants for food, often with meager results. These desert dwellers accumulated and passed on knowledge about which plants were nonpoisonous, palatable, and digestible.

One important group consists of the more than 200 species of agaves, all originating in the Americas. Often mistakenly thought to be cacti, they have long, swordlike leaves tipped with sharp spines, and many have additional spines along the leaf margins. By the time the Spanish invaded, natives had used wild agaves for food and fiber for at least 9,000 years, and the Aztecs had cultivated them for food, fiber, paper, and beverages for several centuries.

Agaves still provide a major source of fiber for cordage. The liquid in the leaves is very caustic, and contact with the skin will leave painful blisters. Plants live from 8 to 30 years and then send up a flowering stalk that may be over 20 feet high. The agave blooms once, making large clusters of flowers that produce seed. Then the plant dies.
pen and ink


Contributor: Elaine Hampton, College of Education, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Two species of Agave

Two species of agave: Chisos Agave in back, Lechuguilla in front. Photograph by Wynn Anderson.



Gentry, H.S. 1982. Agaves of continental North America. University of Arizona Press, Tucson. 670 pp.

Web Resources

The Agave Page.

As food.

Food and fiber.