A small cadre of volunteers gathered on a chilly December morning outside the Red Rock Ranger District Headquarters. These volunteer community scientists were preparing to join an agave inventory effort underway in the Verde Valley. District Wildlife Biologist, Janie Agyagos, was the instructor. The project objective: locate and document special species of agave.

The agave is among the well-known native plants in our area. Most of us are familiar with this sharp-leaved plant and the dramatic, tall bloom stalk it may produce at the end of its life. Those interested in the history of indigenous peoples in the Southwest soon learn that the agave was an important resource for pre-Columbian cultures, who used the plants for food, medicine, cordage, textiles and building materials. Some seventy uses of agaves have been documented.

Twenty-one species of agave can be found in Arizona, more than any other state. It is therefore not surprising that agave was cultivated and farmed by pre-Columbian people in the Verde Valley. Descendant populations of several unique, domesticated agave species can be found today on our surrounding National Forest lands. These species were likely selected and transported or traded into this area from 600 AD or earlier.

Botanists have identified four types of domesticated agaves in the Verde Valley, two of which are endemic or found only here. Domestication indicates selection, tending and hybridization by indigenous peoples to produce optimal plant traits. Local domesticate agave common names are associated with familiar geography: Page Springs agave, Sacred Mountain agave, Tonto Basin agave and Grand Canyon agave. These species are genetically and morphologically distinct from the dominant wild agave in our region, Parry’s agave.

Despite the distinct flower stalk of agaves, these plants rarely produce fertile seed. Reproduction among domesticated agave occurs clonally from underground stems of an adult plant producing new plants or pups. The domesticate agaves surviving today are living relict crops resulting from farming practices and cultural traditions of Ancestral Puebloan and other societies in the region we today call Arizona.

Characteristics of the domesticates suggest traits which were valued by these cultures. Flexible leaves are easily cut. Leaf fiber is long and strong. Varying flowering times (the preferred harvest time) provide reliable availability of agave resources. And yes, the domesticates taste better. Traditionally prepared roasted agave has been periodically offered by the USDA Forest Service for public tasting at the V-V Heritage Site during March Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month. Participants attest to the distinct taste differences among the variety of species.

Volunteer participation in the Verde Valley agave survey was initiated by the Red Rock Ranger District in 2017 in support of the work of Wendy Hodgson, Senior Botanist, and Andrew Salywon, Botanist and Herbarium Curator at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Hodgson and Salywon have studied Arizona’s agaves and the rare domesticated species for 40 and 15 years respectively.

The Verde Valley agave survey area involves 300 square miles, divided into several dozen search zones assigned to individual volunteers. Approximately one third of the survey area has been inventoried so far. The search is conducted by driving on Forest roads and hiking cross-country in remote areas. Scanning or glassing with binoculars for visible agave stalks can narrow the field of search.

When a population of agaves is located, an examination of leaf flexibility and characteristics of the teeth on leaf edges can provide an initial indication of domesticates versus wild agaves. For domesticates, the community scientists document adult and pup plant counts and sizes, GPS coordinates and features of the location, and take prescribed photographs. Data is then forwarded to Hodgson for further analysis and species identification.

Hodgson says, “We could not do the surveying and monitoring of these rare gems without the help of our passionate, dedicated community scientists. Their efforts not only result in finding new populations of our domesticates, but also populations and data on wild agaves that may have played a part in their origins. A huge thank you to this amazing group and to Janie Agyagos who leads them in their work.”

Although the rare domesticate agave species have reproduced for hundreds of years, the future is challenging. These remnant plant populations do not have human care in modern times. Plants are not protected as endangered species or archaeological features. Climate and development are impacting agave habitat.

Discovering and documenting the locations of these unique plants is an important step in support of research and monitoring of the agaves. Learn more about volunteering for this and other wildlife, fish, and rare plant projects on the Red Rock Ranger District at the Friends of the Forest Sedona website.

Serving Sedona, written this week by Jennifer Young of Friends of the Forest