The agave plant, native to the hot and arid regions of Mexico, the southwestern United States and tropical areas of South America, has been utilized by humans for millennia but even today new species are being discovered.
Four new species have been identified by scientists from the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM) in Oaxaca, but there may be many more.
“We have no idea how many there are,” said scientist Abisaí Josué García Mendoza.
What is known is that Mexico has 75% of all agave species in the world and may have more.
“In the last 35 year there have been 44 described as new; this figure means that we’re still in the process of getting to fully know agaves in our own country,” García said.
The genus agave currently has 211 different catalogued species, 159 of which are endemic to Mexico.
Their diversity has been threatened by the growing popularity of mezcal in the last two decades, endangering wild agave plants and making their conservation a concern for scientists.
Of the 38 agave species found solely in Oaxaca, 10 are traditionally used in the elaboration of mezcal by local artisanal producers.
“There are still many questions for which we still have to find answers, like which animal species pollinate the agave flowers, or the success rate of their seeds,” said García, who also works as the curator of the National Agave Collection at the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology.
The efforts of the UNAM biologists, in collaboration with the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio), have found not only new wild species of agave in Oaxaca, but also species that have been domesticated by agave producers over the centuries.
“We know they’ve been used [by humans] for 10,000 years, and probably even longer,” continued García, who added that agaves have been used as a food source and a material for making ropes and nets.
The process through which mezcal is obtained is more recent. Traditionally, the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, is baked in an oven. Sugars are then extracted and fermented, obtaining a wide variety of alcoholic beverages, depending on the variety of agave used.
Tequila is a type of mezcal obtained by using only blue agave plants. Similar beverages are obtained from regional agave varieties, and the resulting products are known as bacanora, raicilla, chuqui, or tepemete.
Source: El Financiero (sp)