Agave plants have been a main staple for Native peoples for thousands of years. Most commonly known for its role in tequila production, the plant is also used for food, fiber, clothing, medicine and ceremonial purposes. To highlight the importance of the agave plant for Native peoples, the Desert Botanical Garden performed a traditional agave roast on the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail recently.
“Pre-Columbian, historic and present-day desert peoples highly valued agaves for their source of sweet, flavorful food and often used the plants as an article of trade,” says Wendy Hodgson, senior research botanist and herbarium curator. “There were many variations in the method of agave roasting, but the majority of groups baked the heads in large stone pits, a labored and complex process.”
A typical agave roast takes two to four days and many hours of preparation. Only specific agave can be used as some species have too much saponins in tissue making them less edible. The perfect time to collect an agave for roasting is when the plant begins to show signs of flowering.
Four Agave parryi x chrysantha hearts were collected from Mount Ord for the roast. To prepare the plant, the leaves have to be removed. This task is difficult due to their fibrous nature and the caustic juice within them. Once the agaves are harvested, the large stone-lined pit is built.
Assembling the pit:
- Dig a hole 1-meter in diameter and depth.
- Line the pit with stones, including one chief stone. The chief stone is larger and placed in the center.
- Wood is placed in the pit and burned to create a large bed of coals.
- Agave hearts are wrapped in burlap and placed on top of the coals.
- More wood is placed on top of the hearts and burned to make a second layer of coals.
- The coals are then covered with native dirt.
The agave hearts roast for three to four days before they are removed from the pit. The outer leaf stubs are peeled from the head and usually dried and stored. The nonfibrous center of the heart, the most tender and sweetest part of the plant is eaten immediately. It is orange in color and tastes similar to a sweet potato. Garden staff, volunteers and visitors were able to participate in the agave roast and taste the different pieces of the agave.
“The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail has two purposes. To focus on the botanical knowledge of Native peoples and to show us that there are better ways to live in an arid environment then we may be doing, especially when it comes to agriculture,” says Ray Leimkuehler, ethnobotany horticulturalist. “By showcasing a traditional agave roast we are able to show our guests the process and allow them to participate which provides a deeper impression than educating through signs or books.”