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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/217

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213
THE CENTURY PLANT

after a day of blinding dust on a hacienda within sight of the great snow peak of Orizaba, as I asked myself how people could find a living in such a place, I noticed the arrival of a wagon-load of dry fodder in the enclosure, quickly followed by another and another and still others, until some twenty had come in—each drawn by five mules. Then I began to realize the number of draft animals alone that were engaged in bringing in the night's food for the others, and was less surprised when, in droves of twenty or fifty, sheep and cattle began to appear from remote points—until I ceased counting and returned to my original question with even greater wonder. It is on these large estates that the maguey—almost the only green thing to be seen in the long dry season—finds its place as one of the many forms of agricultural resource; the ground between them being frequently made to yield an annual grain or other crop which the agaves supplement as, here and there, they mature one at a time.

The pulque maguey is a large plant, and its rosette of thick leaves, though appearing to lie next the ground, is really spaced along a stout trunk as large as a small barrel. The whole, charged with sap, weighs several tons. If left to itself, as it is in gardens on the Riviera, where it is called A. Salmiana, like the century plant it produces a gigantic scape, topped with a candelabrum of flowers, when somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen years old. This is never permitted on the large plantations, for the plant possesses its maximum value when it has reached vegetative maturity and the scape is about to develop. At the critical moment, known from the appearance of the central bud, this is cut out and a shallow cavity is made in the crown of the trunk, which is covered by a stone, pieces of maguey leaves, or other protection. Into the cavity so formed the sap exudes. It is removed two or three times a day, the surface being scraped and the cavity slightly enlarged each time, until at last nothing but a thin shell of the trunk remains, the leaves meantime having given up their content of fluid and dried to their hard framework—as happens naturally during the flowering period of all the larger agaves, when the reserve of sap is drawn into the rapidly growing scape and flowers.

For a period of three months or more a good plant yields a gallon or two of sap daily, and its value may be not far from ten dollars on an average; from which it will be seen that a large maguey plantation represents a considerable item in the assets of a landed proprietor of the plains of Apam.

Often the peons who cut the matured plants fasten part of the bud leaves on to the spines of the outer ones, so that those in bearing may not be overlooked as the tour of the plantation is made by the laborers who gather the sap. One of these men, making his rounds, is an odd sight. Over his back, usually separated from it by a zarape or blanket if he is fortunate enough to have one, or by a piece of