24 May 2009

The Humble Century Plant

17th-century botanical print of a humble century plant.

My apologies, dear readers, for being away. I'm afraid I was deep in the Mexican national archives at Tenochtitlan doing Important Research. While there, however, I stumbled upon an artifact for the Cabinet and an interesting tale for my Blog. You can see a photograph of it below. (BTW: Do not fear, friends. I did not contract H1N1, commonly known as the 'pig flu,' during my time south of the border.) 

Strange and unfathomable, is it not? I purchased it off of a blind man on the Plaza de la Constitucion. It is a jar for pulque from the Aztec period, circa 1200-1520 CE. It is in the form of a monkey and is made of onyx marble.

What is pulque, you ask?

Pulque is an alcoholic drink, made from the juice of the maguey. It is a traditional native beverage that is very popular today among la raza cósmica. The maguey is also the plant responsible for the strong liquors Mescal and Tequila, two reasons that don't remember the Spring Break vacation from my Prestigious Undergraduate Institution in '52! The maguey is commercially harvested across Mexico for the production of these alcholic beverages. Nice packaging, eh? I would down a six pack of pulque every afternoon during my three months in the archives. Who says deciphering sixteenth-century Castillian paleography can't be a hoot and a holler?

 A man being attacked by a sentient Century Plant. 
From Elizabeth Visere McGary's An American Girl in Mexico, 1904.

"Pulque! Get ya pulque here!" 
Photochrome print of a pulque store, Tacubaya, Guanajuato, Mexico, c. 1900.

The maguey plant, more commonly known as the "century plant," is a member of the agave family. Despite appearances, it is neither a type of cactus nor able to herbally treat minor burns. Here is a picture (artistic rendering) of the century plant: 

Whoa! Look at how ****ing tall that thing is! That gentleman/lady looks pretty impressed, too. They say everything's bigger in California, though, right?

Even though its name would lead one to believe that the century plant indeed lives for a century, I'm afraid that, just as with the Hundred Years' War (Guerre de Cent Ans), the name is rather inaccurate. Most century plants do not live as long as John Denver co-star George Burns but instead approximate the lifespan of Seattle musician and malcontent Kurt Cobain.

An agave in bloom in Austin, Texas.

It has gray-green leaves up to six feet long, with spiny edges and a large spike at the tip. (That's what she said.) The maguey flowers only once, producing a stalk with big yellow flowers reaching up to twenty-five feet in tall. The century plant dies after flowering. :(

There's two happy endings to this story, though. It produces suckers that grow into their own little magueys. And I'm stone drunk on pulque!!!! Woooohoooo!

Well, more from the Cabinet soon....perhaps about the century plant, or maybe about eighteenth century itinerant book peddlers. 

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