Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/225

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
221
THE CENTURY PLANT

Henequen, however, is par-excellence the fiber agave. An interesting minor chapter in our national evolution is contained in the numerous appeals made to Congress about seventy years ago by our former consul at Campeche, Henry Perrine, who desired a land grant in subtropical Florida for the cultivation of this and other tropical plants. The grant cost him his life, for he was killed by the Indians, and the zone of henequen in this country scarcely goes beyond the radius of his own tentative introduction of plants; but the Yucatan industry, which in Dr. Perrine's day was small, though he saw a great future for it if only the fiber could be less laboriously cleaned than it then was by hand, has grown greatly, and the Bahamas, India, Hawaii and tropical Africa are entering the field with more or less realization of their expectations of gain from this crop.

Like the pulque maguey and the Tequila mezcal, henequen is represented in the larger plantations by several horticultural forms if not by more than one distinct species. The one most grown in Yucatan appears to be the taller form with long, narrow, prickly leaves, generally known to foreigners as white or gray henequen—and usually, but wrongly, designated by botanists as Agave rigida elongata. A better fiber plant is the entire-leaved green henequen, called Agave Sisalana by Perrine, also, but to a smaller extent, grown in Yucatan, and now spontaneous in tropical Florida from Perrine's importation. It is this which has been introduced into the Bahamas and Hawaii, though both the gray and green forms are being experimented with elsewhere.

The utilization of a henequen plant is not effected abruptly at the end of its life, as with the pulque and mezcal species, but, after a wait of five or six years, it extends over a period of from seven to fourteen years, during which the annual yield is said to be from 20 to 40 leaves per plant in several gatherings—the number of mature leaves removed each year determining the longer or shorter period during which cropping may continue. One of the difficulties experienced in trying to cultivate henequen away from the limestone terraces of Yucatan has been that it goes to seed at too early an age, for this ends its usefulness instead of at the same time bringing it to fruition as is the case with the plants grown for pulque or mezcal, though its expiring energy is said to be then thrown into leaf production by cutting out the scape at its inception.

The cultivation of henequen in Yucatan is comparable with that of the maguey on the plains of Apam, in that it is now chiefly in the hands of large proprietors. Plantations are extensive, and the mills for cleaning the fiber are proportionately large. The older leaves are cut, at such intervals and in such numbers as the condition of the plants is thought to warrant, and, after the prickles have been sliced from their edges, trucked or carried on tram roads to the mill, where, while they are still fresh, by means of some form of rotary scraper