What is a Maguey Plant?
The maguey is a plant that grows in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and northern Central America. Its scientific name is Agave americana. People have used this large relative of the lily family for food, beverages, medicine, and more since ancient times.
It was first cultivated as a source of food around 5,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. The Aztecs called it mexcalmetl or metl and believed it to be a gift from the gods.
In its natural environment, it can grow as tall as 20 feet (6 meters), but on farms where humans cultivate it for tequila production, the plants are limited to 10 feet (3 meters) to prevent them from growing too big for ease of harvesting.
Mexicans used it for a number of purposes, including food and drink. They cooked the heart of the plant, harvested it when it reached about five years old. In this form, they ate both the pulp and fibers after roasting in pits for between 24 and 36 hours, depending on the size. The roasted fibers were also ground into flour to make bread. The leaves were also fed to animals such as turkeys when other meat products were unavailable.
Taking Care of a Maguey Plant
The maguey plant (agave americana) is an essential element in the culture of Mexico and one of its leading symbols. This plant can be used to make hundreds of things like fabrics, ropes, baskets, musical instruments (mariachi), soap, corks for bottles, etc. However, it is more widely known worldwide as source material for making alcohol such as tequila, mezcal, and pulque.
If you are lucky enough to have your own maguey plantation at home (which would require a very generous yard), then here I am going to show you how to take care of it so that it gives you more benefits than harm.
Throughout this post, I’m going with the assumption that you already have your maguey planted in the ground, whether it’s seedling or growing for several years.
People have been using this plant for centuries before the Spanish invasion, so they knew very well how to grow it and take care of it properly. Since then, some changes have occurred due to modernization and industrialization, but fortunately, the most important ways of caring for this plant are still being maintained. I want to talk about how you should use your new maguey during its early years.
Do Not Cut It Down After Six Months
When planting a new maguey plant, do not cut it down after six months if no fresh leaves are sprouting out. As time goes by, it will develop a “piña” (like an inside-out pineapple), where its sugars are stored, so you harvest the fibers and give the plant water.
This piña will grow throughout the maguey’s life, but one usually grows faster than others. It may take up to two years for this piña to grow big enough, while some can get very huge during many years of growth.
Do Not Cut Off Any Vine Branches On Top Of The Ground
The more branches it has, the better because they suck out all surrounding moisture from the soil and store it in their leaves for future use. If they don’t have enough vines on top of the ground, this means there isn’t enough water, and it will start to wither.
Watering your maguey is very important. In the dry months, a plant needs a lot of water during its early years, but you can start watering it less and less as time goes by.
During rainy seasons, you should give more water than usual so that maguey multiplies its vines on top of the ground. If there are a tremendous amount of vines around leaves, this means maguey has a sufficient amount of moisture. This is good for tequila production later on because it will have enough sugars to ferment into alcohol.
Making New Baby Plants Every Seven Years
After some years have passed, take out new baby plants from the plantation every seven years or so. Although they’re not fully mature plants, you can use them to make a new plantation in a remote location.
To do this, dig out the plant from the soil by making a circle around it with your feet. Once you reach half-meter height, cut off its leaves with a machete and carry the plant carefully on your back to the transportation vehicle.
Weeding Is Vital
Weeding is very important because if there are other plants around it, they will suck up water that maguey needs to grow bigger and stronger. I have seen many people try growing maguey in pots so they can move it away from weed growth, but this takes away all benefits of using vines around leaves. Your best bet would be finding a place where no other plants can grow or simply put weed-killing chemicals into the ground.
Pruning Is Essential
Good pruning is important. Make sure to cut off branches and leaves so sunlight can get inside maguey’s canopy; otherwise, it won’t grow any more extensive than its original size. It would be best if you also cut off all dead or diseased vines, so it doesn’t spread anywhere else on your plantation.
I recommend doing this around once a year, but depending on how fast your plant grows and how much work you’re willing to put in, you can do it more often or less often.
Planting Larger Trees Around It Is Beneficial
Planting trees and other plants near your maguey will help because these trees will provide shade and humidity to keep your precious plant healthy. This is especially useful during hot days when sun rays shine directly onto your maguey and make leaves dry and crispy.
When this happens, the plant will drink a lot of water to hydrate it back into its normal state. I recommend planting pine trees around plantations because they’re not only good at providing humidity, but their pine needles also provide nutrients that help your plants grow stronger.
It’s important to fertilize maguey with manures of cows or horses. The best fertilizer would be cow manure because it consists of healthy proteins and nutrients which are easy for plants to absorb. Planting some vines on top of the ground is crucial during the early years, so you should fertilize it before new leaves sprout out.
If you don’t feel like buying some manure from farm marketplaces, then you can always go to the wilderness and gather cows and horse’s manure and then bury it inside your maguey plantation.
Harvesting is vital for getting tequila. If you leave the plant alone, it will keep growing bigger until there are no more nutrients left for it to eat. Leaves won’t grow any longer once this happens, so all work you put in throughout the years will have been wasted.
So please do yourself a favor and cut off these leaves before they wither! Cutting leaves at the base should be enough because if one leaf is cut off at the top of the plant, then many branches underneath that leaf could die as well.
Now that leaves are gone wait another two years to harvest the plant’s pina for tequila production.
Find a place where plenty of people can come and help you take out new plants from the ground. When these baby plants grow into big vines, they’ll bear flowers that will be used to fertilize the next generation of maguey.
If you cut off all leaves the summer before, then you can harvest your plants at this time so they will have enough sugars inside them to produce a good amount of tequila during the fermentation process later on.
As long as there are no other plants around it, maguey should continue growing bigger every year. It’s important not to cut it down after harvesting because if you do, then dead branches stuck on the ground could cause new vines to grow underneath them.
If new vines are allowed to grow, they will be very weak, making it easy for other plants to overtake your plantation.
Knowing when to harvest is the hardest part of this process. If you try cutting maguey’s pina too early, its sugars won’t have developed yet, so what you get at the end is lousy quality tequila that doesn’t smell or taste like alcohol.
Don’t cut new piña until it becomes soft enough for a knife to poke through easily; otherwise, it’s not ready for harvesting! I recommend using an electric saw on branches because knives can slip while cutting maguey, so if you fall while holding a knife, there’s a chance you could cut yourself or someone else.
Crazy Tip! Talk To Your Maguey Plant
The best way to care for maguey is by talking to it. You can communicate with it by speaking or yelling towards the plant, and if you do this, it will reward you with tequila! But make sure nobody catches you doing this because they might think you’re crazy.