The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Agave spp.


Agaves, Mezcal Plants




Agavaceae (Century Plant Family; Zander 1994, 95*), previously Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Forms and Subspecies


There are approximately 136 species in the genus Agave in Mexico and neighboring regions (Gentry 1982). Many of the larger species are ethnobotanically and ethnopharmacologically significant.

Species used in the manufacture of fermented beverages (pulque, suguí, tesgüino, tizwin, mesagoli) and distilled spirits (tequila, mescal, pisto):


Agave americana L. (century plant, teometl, mescale)

Agave americana L. var. expansa (Jacobi) Gentry (mescal maguey)

Agave asperimma Jacobi

Agave atrovirens Karw. ex Salm. (maguey, metl, tlacametl)

Agave bocicornuta Gentry (mescal luchuguilla, sa’pulí)

Agave cerulata Trel. ssp. dentiens (Trel.) Gentry

Agave durangensis Gentry

Agave ferox Koch (maguey)

Agave hookeri Jacobi

Agave latissima Jacobi [syn. Agave macroculmis Tod., A. coccinea hort. non Roezl ex Jacobi]

Agave mapisaga Trel. (maguey manso, maguey mapisaga)

Agave mescal Koch (mescal agave)

Agave multifilifera Gentry (chahuí)

Agave pacifica Trel. (mescal del monte, mescal casero, gusime)

Agave palmeri Engelm.

Agave parryi Engelm.

Agave polianthiflora Gentry (ri’yéchili)

Agave potatorum Zucc. [syn. Agave scolymus Karw.] (tlacametl)

Agave potatorum Zucc. var. verschaffeltii (Lem.) Berger [syn. Agave verschaffeltii Lem.] (tlacametl)

Agave rhodacantha Trel.

Agave salmiana Otto ex Salm-Dyck [syn. Agave atrovirens Karw. var. salmiana (Otto ex SD.) Trel., Agave atrovirens Trel. and “of authors” (Gentry 1982, 13)] (maguey de pulque, tlacametl)

Agave shrevei Gentry (mescal blanco, o’tosá)

Agave tequilana Weber (tequila agave, maguey, blue agave)

Agave tequilana Weber cv. Azul (“blue variety”)

Agave vivipara L. [syn. Agave angustifolia Haw.] (babki, mescal de maguey)

Agave weberi Cels

Agave wocomahi Gentry (mescal verde, ojcome, pine maguey)

Agave zebra Gentry


For fibers, medicines, and sacrificial thorns (pencas):

Agave americana L.

Agave sisalana Perrine (henequen, sisal agave, kih)

Agave fourcroydes Lem. [syn. Agave ixtlioides Lem.] (henequen agave)

Folk Names


Agave, century plant, chupalla, henequen, maguei, maguey, mescal plant, meskalpflanze, metl, mezcal plant, pita


For the fermented juice:

Agave wine, iztac octli, mesagoli, mescal beer, metl, octli, pulque, suguí, tesgüino, tizwin, vino mescal, wine


For the distilled liquor:

Agave schnapps, mescal, mezcal, pisto, tequila, tuché (Huichol), vino mescal



Roasted remains of agaves, dated to approximately 8,000 years ago, have been recovered from the caves of Tehuacán (Mexico) (Wolters 1996, 28*). In prehistoric times, agave was already playing an important role as a source of food, inebriants, and materials in Mexico and the American Southwest. Some agaves were even used as poisons to stun fish in isolated bodies of water (Bye et al. 1975). The Mexican agaves were first described around 1577 by Francisco Hernández. The Conquistadors also remarked about the use of the fermented juice (pulque) (Gentry 1982).


The Mexican Agave salmiana is the most important species used to produce pulque and tequila.



In Yucatán (Mexico), great quantities of fibers obtained from the leaves of the sisal agave (Agave sisalana) are used to produce a variety of fiber products. This species can also be used to produce inebriating beverages. (Plantation at San Antonio Tehuitz, Yucatán)



The inflorescence of the century plant (Agave americana) develops when the plant is about fourteen years old. Afterward, the plant dies.



What Is Mescal?


The name mescal has created a great deal of terminological confusion about both psycho-active plants and their products.

The term is used to refer to a type of agave (the mescal agave), while the alcoholic spirits that are distilled from this species are also known as mescal or mezcal.

In southern California, Yucca whipplei Torr. is known as maguey, but also as mescal (Tim-brook 1990, 247*).

Even the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) is called mescal or mescalito, while the buttons that are sliced from this cactus are called mescal buttons or mescal heads. In addition, the seeds of Sophora secundiflora are known as mescal beans.

In the “drug scene,” mescaline trips are often known as mescalitos.

In North America, the species Agave felgeri Gentry is known as mescalito.

With so many associations with the word mescal, it is not surprising that some people are firmly convinced that mescal spirits contain mescaline and are able to induce psychedelic effects.

In addition, it is rumored that the worm (actually a larva) that is contained in mescal con gusano contains special constituents and will induce hallucinogenic effects when eaten. Some people maintain that several worms must be eaten to obtain a sufficient dosage.



The blue agave (Agave tequilana) is regarded as the best plant for the production of tequila.



Mayahuel, the goddess of agave, the source of the inebriating pulque drink. (Codex Laud, 9r.)



Eating the gusano de mescal, an insect larva that lives in the mescal agave, will allegedly produce psychoactive effects.



Because the mescal worm is purportedly psychoactive and is, moreover, (still) legal, a California manufacturer had the idea of putting this unappetizing little creature into a lollipop.


According to Aztec historical records, pulque was “invented” in Central America between 1172 and 1291, after the Aztecs had migrated from the north (Gentry 1982, 8). Pulque has probably been used for a considerably longer period of time and was known to many peoples and tribes. Pulque and similar alcoholic beverages also played a role among the tribes of northern Mexico and in the American Southwest (cf.beerchicha). The Apaches, for example, used agave to make fermented drinks (tizwin) that were ritually consumed during tribal festivals (Barrows 1967, 75*).

Today, the Mexican agaves are important primarily because they are used in the production of tequila, and they are popular throughout the world as ornamental plants.



The genus Agave is indigenous to Mexico and the American Southwest. Numerous species of the genus are from Mexico and have been cultivated for various purposes since prehistoric times (Dressler 1953, 120f.*).



Agaves are propagated using bulblets (offshoots), which are planted in growing fields shortly before the beginning of the rainy season. After twelve to eighteen months, the plants are transplanted to production fields. When this occurs, all of the roots are cut away from the rootstock (Rehm and Espig 1996, 328*). Agaves are succulents (photo-synthesis occurs according to the crassulacean pattern) and can easily survive long periods without water. Some species thrive in the desert, others in tropical rain forests. Although the quality of the soil is not important, it should be well drained.



Most agaves, and especially those species that are used in the production of pulque and spirits, are quite similar and rather uniform in appearance. They are hardy plants with thick, fleshy roots from which the fleshy leaf rosette grows. The lanceolate, cultrate, or hastate leaves are sharply pointed at the ends, and most have serrated edges and a very sharp, hard, woody tip. At the end of their lifetimes, the plants produce a panicled inflorescence on a straight, smooth stalk. The bulblets form in the axils of the flower bracts. From 1,000 to 4,000 bulblets may grow on one inflorescence (Rehm and Espig 1996, 327*).

Psychoactive Material


—Aguamiel (Spanish, “honey water”), the sugary juice that collects in the interior (the shaft) of the plant.

Shortly before the plant is ready to develop its inflorescence, a sap (aguamielmetl) that is very high in sugar accumulates in the shaft of the plant underneath the leaf crown. This sap apparently ferments as a result of microbial (Pseudomonas lindneri), wild yeast, or fungal activity (Gonçalves 1956). The plant produces the fermented drink known as pulque (also mezcal or vino mezcal) on its own. This process can be artificially controlled by removing a portion of the leaf crown. When this is done, the plant will produce a much greater quantity of the inebriating juice (around 2 liters per day). The plant will produce new pulque daily for up to one month (Bye 1979a, 152f.*).

—Mescal worm (gusano de mescal)

Preparation and Dosage


The plant juice can either be tapped while it is fermenting or fermented in a covered, but not tightly closed, vat.24 Pulque contains 3% to 4% alcohol (Havard 1896, 34*). Various plants have been and still are added to the pulque to improve it and to modify its psychoactive effects (see table).

The Serí Indians of northern Mexico boil the narrow leaves of Agave cerulata Trel. ssp. dentiens (Trel.) Gentry, a plant they call heme, chop them into small pieces, and place them into the carapace of a sea turtle. They then press them with a stone, so that the juice collects within the carapace. The juice, which ferments within just a few days, is diluted with water prior to consumption (Felger and Moser 1991, 223*).

The Tarahumara manufacture suguí or tesgüino from a number of agaves. They boil the leaves in water, press the agave hearts (mescal hearts), or make an extract from the chopped leaves. Fermentation occurs on its own (Bye et al. 1975, 88).

The Indians of Arizona prepared their mescal beer from the inflorescences of Agave parryi and Agave palmeri (Havard 1896, 34*).

Alcoholic spirits (tequila, mescal) are distilled either from the plant juice (aguamiel) or from boiled and mashed leaves. The Yaqui Indians fortify their mescal liquor with the leaves of Datura innoxia. In Mexico, it is also common to use marijuana flowers (cf. Cannabis sativa), sugar, and chili pods (see Capsicum spp.) as additives to mescal (Reko 1936, 64*). Damiana (Turnera diffusa) is also a good tequila additive. In fact, there are a great number of recipes for tequila (Walker and Walker 1994).

It is said that the mescal worm (a larva approximately 5 cm in length) that is added to some mescal spirits should be eaten whole if a psychoactive effect is desired. Two or three worms is considered an effective dosage. Recently, a California manufacturer began producing sugar-free lollipops, each containing a mescal worm.


Pulque Additives


(Adapted with modifications from Bye 1979a, 153*; Bye 1979b, 38*; Bye et al. 1975; Furst 1974, 71*; Havard 1896, 39*; Marino Ambrosio 1966; Kuehne Heyder 1995.)





In the Yucatán, the roots of one maguey agave (perhaps Agave americana var. expansa) were used as an additive to balche’.

Ritual Use


Among the Aztecs, pulque was a drink sacred to the gods that could be drunk only on ritual occasions. The dosage was limited to four bowls. Men over the age of seventy, however, were allowed to drink until they were inebriated. Sacrificial celebrations were followed by ritual drinking bouts:


And on the following day, wine [= pulque] was drunk and the after-celebration of the festival took place. The wine that was drunk is called blue wine. Everyone drank wine, the old men, the old women, and the chiefs of the nobility, the married, the adults, and the princes of blood and the leaders of the adults. And the first among the ranks of the young who were already strong, they too drank wine, but they drank in secret, they did not show themselves, they used the night as protection, they hid themselves under the grass so that they would not be seen. But if someone discovered them and it became known that they had drunk wine, then they would hit them with a jaw club so that their flesh would swell up, and they would shave their heads as slaves, drag them, kick them, throw them to the ground, and do everything evil to them until it sometimes occurred that they killed them. And after they had quieted their lust, they would throw them down, throw them out of the house. (Sahagun, Florentine Codex 2:34*)



The Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), known as a toxic plant, is used to fortify pulque obtained from agaves.



The seedpods of the mesquite tree (Prosopis juliflora DC.) contain 25 to 30% sugar and are thus ideal for use as a fermentation agent. Boiled and crushed in water, they yield a fresh, sweet beverage known in northern Mexico as atole. If allowed to stand, it quickly ferments. After one to two days, a beerlike drink results (chicha). The plant is also added to Mexican pulque.



An early European illustration of the American agave, which was interpreted as a relative of the aloe. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633*)




The mescal agave (Agave horrida Lem.); its name is derived from the Aztec word mexcalmetl. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)


The inebriating beverage was used as a ritual offering and libation for the gods and also was needed for human sacrifices. Before the ceremony, those whom the Aztecs were to sacrifice were required to drink four bowls of pulque, to which Datura innoxia or a decoction of the bark of the incense tree Bursera bipinnata had apparently been added. Once inebriated in this manner, they were allowed to have the priests rip the hearts out of their still-living bodies on the sacrificial altar.

In his 1541 work, Historia de los indios de la Nueva España, Motolinia had already alluded to the addition of ocpatli, apparently Acacia angustifolia (cf. Acacia spp.), and this addition was forbidden in the colonial period. The additive as well as the resulting drink were both known as teoctli, “divine pulque,” or xochioctli,“flower pulque” (Ott 1996d, 428*).

The Huaxtec, who live on the Gulf of Mexico, used pulque in all their rituals and glorified the state of inebriation it produced. Pulque was also used during the sexual magical rites held to honor the erotic images of their gods. Men and women would copulate before the statues as the priests administered pulque enemas to them (even today, pulque is still regarded as an aphrodisiac). Following this, the men and women would perform ritual anal coitus. It appears that the pulque that was used for these purposes was fortified with thorn apple roots (Datura innoxia) (Kuehne Heyder 1995).

Large quantities of spirits distilled from agaves were also consumed in shamanic rituals, especially during the peyote festivals of the Huichols (cf. Lophophora williamsii):


The shaman took a few swigs from a bottle of a potent liquor made from the agave plant, then passed it to me. I matched him swig for swig. Then he picked up the bowl of peyote gruel and took a long drink. I counted the gulps and took the same amount. This continued throughout the night. (Siegel 1992, 28*)


It should be noted that the mescaline contained in the peyote cactus strongly suppresses the effects of alcohol.

Pieces of agave are also used in ritual healing and fertility ceremonies, usually as amulets (Bye et al. 1975, 91). In Aztec sacrificial ceremonies, the tips of the leaves (pencas) were driven as thorns into the skin of the victims. They were also used in raising boys to be noblemen. Anyone who behaved inappropriately was punished using agave thorns (Gentry 1982, 10).



Aztec manuscripts contain numerous depictions of the pulque goddess Mayahuel and the foaming drink itself, as well as of drinking rituals, drinking sacrifices, and libations (Gonçalves 1956). Pulque also appears in Aztec songs and poems (Guerrero 1985).

In Cholula (Puebla), pre-Columbian wall paintings have been discovered that depict the ritual drinking of pulque. Peter Furst has identified the blossoms portrayed in one of the paintings as those of Turbina corymbosa. He has suggested that the seeds of this plant, which produce psychedelic effects, were used as an additive to the pulque (Furst 1974, 71*).

Agaves, tequila bottles, and states of drunkenness resulting from tequila are common elements in the paintings of such Mexican artists as Eugenia Marcos, Elena Climent, Joel Renón, and Ricardo Martínez. Tequila is praised in many Mexican poems and songs (Artes de México 1994).

Medicinal Use


Different agaves find numerous uses in folk medicine. They are used to treat wounds, snake-bites, skin diseases, foot fungus, venereal diseases, toothaches, rheumatism, diarrhea, et cetera (Wolters 1996, 31f.*).

In Mexico, it is widely believed that mezcal con gusano has aphrodisiac effects, as the worm is thought to contain active constituents. And in general, tequila and mescal are popularly associated with sex and eroticism.

Preparations of Agave americana are also used in homeopathy (Wolters 1996, 35*).



Agaves contain saponins, steroid saponins, hecogenin glycosides, large amounts of sugar (up to 8%), vitamin C, polysaccharides, and minerals (Wolters 1996, 34*). Agave americana contains saponine, a pungent essential oil, from 0.4 to 3% hecogenin, and oxalic acid (Roth et al. 1994, 103*). Agave juice contains 8% sugar (agavose), essential oil, and some papain. Pulque contains 2 to 4% alcohol as well as large amounts of vitamin C and has 204 calories per liter.



The effects of pure pulque are similar to those of balche’chicha, and palm wine. However, there is also a noticeably refreshing component. In a pulque inebriation, one remains clearer than in a beer inebriation. Pulque that has been fortified with Psilocybe spp. is not merely inebriating, but also visionary. Visions of snakes are said to appear with some regularity (Havard 1896, 39*).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


A number of agave species are available in nurseries throughout the world as ornamentals. Pulque is found only in Mexico. The corresponding distilled spirits (tequila, mescal) are sold around the world and are subject to local regulations regarding alcoholic beverages. The best-quality tequila, manufactured using the blue agave (Agave tequilana cv. Azul), is only infrequently found outside of Mexico. Similarly, tequilas that have been stored and aged for longer periods are not easily obtained outside of Mexico.



See also the entries for alcoholbalche’beer, and chicha.


Artes de México. 1984. El tequila. Arte Tradicional de México. 27.


Barrios, Virginia B. de. 1984. A guide to tequila, mezcal and pulque. Mexico: Minutae Mexicana.


Benitez, Fernando. 1973. Ki: El drama de un pueblo y de una planta. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Econlanta.


Bye, Robert A., Don Burgess, and Albino Mares Trias. 1975. Ethnobotany of the western Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico. 1: Notes on the genus Agave. Botanical Museum Leaflets 24 (5): 85–112.


Castetter, E. F., W. H. Bell, and A. R. Grove. 1938. The early utilization and the distribution of agave in the American Southwest. University of New Mexico Bulletin (Biological Series) 5 (4).


Gentry, Howard Scott. 1982. Agaves of continental North America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


Gonçalves de Lima, Oswaldo. 1956. El maguey y el pulque en los codices Mexicanos. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica.


Guerrero, Raúl. 1985. El pulque. Mexico: INAH. Kuehne Heyder, Nicola. 1995. “Uso de alucinogenos de la huaxteca: La probable utilización de la datura en una cultura prehispanica.” Integration 5:63–71.


Marino Ambrosio, A. 1966. The pulque agaves of Mexico. PhD thesis, Department of Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


Morton, Julia F. 1978. Brazilian pepper—its impact on people, animals and the environment. Economic Botany 32 (4): 353–59.


Nandra, K. S., and I. S. Bhatia. 1980. In vivo biosynthesis of glucofructosans in Agave americana. Phytochemistry 19:965–66.


Walker, Ann, and Larry Walker. 1994. Tequila. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.


“All inebriating beverages, including the hallucinogenic ones, stood under the protection of the goddess Mayahuel, who was originally only a simple farmer’s wife. The myth reports how she wanted to kill a mouse in the fields one day. But the animal escaped, danced fearlessly around her, and laughed at her. Dumbfounded, Mayahuel ultimately noticed that the mouse had nipped on a maguey plant, from which a milky juice was dripping. She collected this juice and took it with her to her house so that her husband could try it. After drinking it, the two of them became cheerful and completely relaxed, and life appeared to them to be pure joy. Because they consecrated the drink to the gods, these thanked Mayahuel by naming her the goddess of pulque, while her husband became Xochipilli (‘flower prince’), the lord of flowers and games.”






(NICHOLSON 1967, 69f.*)



The pulque agave, or maguey (Agave atrovirens Karw.), is known in Aztec as metl. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)