The "Weber" Agave

Every several months or so, I get an inquiry asking about Weber's Blue Agave. In response I immediately begin asking my own series of questions. Questions to help determine how best to answer the inquiry, because whether the person asking the question knows it or not, the question is loaded. The reason the question is so problematic lies in the difficulties inherit with all common names. Common names only work if all parties using the name are applying it to the same object. If three people from different places use a word to describe an object or action but each individual has a different object or action in mind they are not going to communicate effectively and the outcomes of their actions could be disastrous. If I go to a nursery as ask three different employees for a Flame Bush or Hummingbird Bush, I might be shown three or more different plants. But if I ask three folks for Anisicanthus quadrifidus wrightii I should be shown the same species of plant. The specific problem with the common name of Weber’s Agave is that it can be associated with two different species of Agave and unless I do some inquires of my own I can dispense an answer that may be “right” but not the answer desired. Agave tequilana Weber and Agave weberi Cels ex Poisson are the two different plants in question.

Agave tequilanaThe first plant, Agave tequilana, was described by the botanist Frédéric Albert Constantin Weber in 1902, from near the village of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. It is the Agave used in the production of the distilled spirit Tequila. It is a cool tropical plant listed hardy to zone 9b or 10a and can tolerate only brief amounts of light frost before being severely damaged by cold. It produces numerous, 4’ to 6’ long, rigidly upright held, lance shaped leaves that are about 4” wide and are blue-grey to blue-silver in color. The leaf margins are lined with a row of fine, prickly, black teeth that recurve forward and though they look benign are wicked to handle. A thick black spine terminates the end of each leaf.

Agave weberiThe second plant in question, Agave weberi, was introduced to European cultivation by a French Nurseryman Jacques Philippe Martin Cels. The plant was obtained by Cels through Henri Louis Poisson, which later (circa 1901) validly published the name Agave weberi, who apparently named the plant in honor of Dr. Albert Weber. The plant originated from Tamaulipas, Mexico. It is hardy to zone 8b and can tolerate temperature into the mid-teens for short periods of time. The leaf color can range from olive-green to grey-green to blue-green and are held somewhat upright in youth but become more relaxed and often curl out and downward with age. The leaves can reach 5’ to 6’ in length. The leaves are generally 5” to 8”in width at the widest point but gradually taper to a sharp point at the terminal end of the leaves. The leaf margins are typically smooth on most clones found in South Texas but plants found elsewhere can have a row of very fine teeth that are relatively harmless to deal with. A black spine terminates the tip of each leaf.

Often when plants don’t have attributes that engender a catchy or descriptive common name folks utilize the name of the person that described the plant to science, (the person’s name that is supposed to follow the Botanical Name but is often left off for brevity) as part of the common name. In the instance of Agave tequilana Weber, the person that validly described the plant was Dr. Albert Weber, thus later to commonly become known as Weber’s agave. In other instances when the plant does not have catchy or descriptive attributes and the specific epithet of a species is a Latinized person’s name then sometimes that specific epithet gets utilized as part of common name. Thus Agave weberi also gets associated with the common name of Weber’s Agave. These rules are obviously imperfect and because common names are unofficial and there are no official governing rules for their application, common names can be anything and everything but are most often confusing. So with all the Webers floating about here and there one might see how Weber’s Agave gets applied to two different plants.

What often drives any initial inquiry for Weber’s Agave I will ascribe to the hysteria over the distilled beverage Tequila, derived from the Blue Agave (aka Agave Azul, Maguey Azul). After having a few frozen margaritas at the local cantina some folks learn that the Tequila, in those wonderful frozen concoctions, is made from the nectar of the “Blue Agave”, a somewhat vague and romantic moniker. And before sobering up they wonder if they can make Tequila from the big old nasty Blue Century Plant (Agave americana) in their back yard, after all it’s an “A-guave” (sic). After a bit of research they may find out that the blue agave in their yard is not the same plant but their curiosity is peaked and they continue their query. Internet searches will result in all sorts of information useful and not about Blue Agave and they may see the name Weber’s Agave amongst the listed search results. The inebriant effects of their last few margaritas having not fully worn off they set forth to acquire a Blue or Weber’s Agave. Though the information they have is vague, they can’t but help start dreaming of going into the distilled spirit business because if growing this Weber’s Agave is as easy as growing that big old nasty Century Plant (Agave americana) they will quit their boring daytime jobs and get rich (or at least get drunk). Never mind that the Tequila Agave is most likely not hardy where they live and certain laws govern where Tequila can lawfully be grown and produced. (Tequila can only come from plants of Agave tequilana and grown and produced in the States of Jalisco, Mexico and several surrounding states. Any distilled spirit produced outside of this area made with Agave tequilana or another species of Agave is generally referred to as Mescal). Other folks may not be nearly as ambitions or deluded but still want to have and grow the “Blue Agave” because of the lore and mystique of this plant is so powerful.

But still where and how does one acquire an actual Agave that the spirit Tequila is derived from. The most important thing is to forget all of the common names that float about and focus on the Botanical Name or Latin Name of the plant in question. Yes it might be easier to say Blue Agave, Weber’s Agave, Agave Azul or whatever is regionally dominate but these common names are also easier to confuse. The reason for botanical Latin is to reduce confusion across language barriers and regional and cultural divides. Texas and Californians and Mexicans might have different plants in mind when talking about “Weber’s Agave” or “Blue Agave” or “Agave Azul” but if they all stick to the botanical name Agave tequilana they can all intelligently discus the same plant.