In 2009 the monocot family Agavaceae was re-classified to subfamily Agavoideae and placed in the Asparagaceae (128 genera and about 3,000 species) family. Several other monocot families were placed in Asparagaceae at the same time. Before that many botanists considered the family a sub-family of Lily family (Liliaceae). Many large classification authorities have not made the update and continue to recognize full family status. In Southwest Desert Flora we treat Agavaceae as its own family.
Agavaceae are mostly limited to the western hemisphere; North, Central and South America. In North America, the Agavaceae, Mescal, Century Plant or Lechuguilla (small plants) family contain 10 genera and more than 100 accepted taxa. Among the most notable genera in the southwestern United States are Agave, Dasylirion, Hesperaloe, Hesperoyucca and Yucca.
The largest and most significant genus is Agave with about 38 species in North America and approximately 200 species primarily native to Central and South America. Contrary to popular belief from the common name “century” plants, most or all Agaves do not live for a century and die. The life-span of an Agave depends of the species, climate, soil and other factors. The second largest genus is Yucca with 30 species in North America and more than 45 species in other hot, dry places in Mexico and South America.
Family characteristics: Plants: perennial, monocarpic, woody caudex or short root stock, herbs, shrubs or subshrubs and large or small trees, growth form typically a root caudex in the form of a rosette; Leaves: simple, deciduous or not, mostly succulent; thick, fibrous, linear, lanceolate, oblanceolate or ovate, margins entire, serrate, dentate or with filaments, often spine-tipped; inflorescence: tall, stout and rigid shooting upward from center of rosettes, terminal or axillary spikes ending in a raceme or panicle; Flowers: numerous, bisexual, lily type, perianth tubular or funnel-form, stamens exserted; Fruits: thick-walled capsules, indehiscent or fleshly; Reproduction: seeds, bulbs, root suckers from rhizomes and pups on flowering stem.
Agaves are amazing as almost all vegetative parts provide significant resources such as materials, tools and food or beverages. As a result, agave species were and are cherished by many particularly by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Ethnobotanical uses include cultivation of plants for fiber (sisal) and food; fermentation of the agave juices are used to make mescal and tequila; agave plants are used for making food by roasting the (heads or cabeza) and young emerging stalks; baskets and other materials are made from the leaf fibers (sisal) and tools are made from the flowering stalks, fibers and sharp spines. Agave nectar is used commercially as a sugar substitute and agave plants are readily used for arid landscaping in hot and warm dry climates and for ornamental purposes including large and small container gardening.