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Family: Agavaceae Endl.

Kingdom: Plantae Rank: Family Parent: Liliales Status: Valid

Common Names:

  • YUCCA FAMILY - English, United States of America
  • CENTURY-PLANT FAMILY - English, United States of America
  • SISAL FAMILY - English, United States of America
  • AGAVE FAMILY - English, United States of America

Morphological Description

Family Recognition in the Field: Usually xerophytic, typically robust perennials, often with leaves basal or crowded near base of stem (or at stem apex in large tree-like yuccas) and sometimes sharp-pointed; inflorescence a raceme or panicle; fruit a capsule or fleshy and berry-like.

Diagnosis: Herbaceous or woody, usually xerophytic perennials; stems variously subterranean and not evident to trunk-like and obvious; leaves evergreen, usually basal or bunched, proportionally narrow, flat to concave or thickened, +/- fleshy or leathery, with widened, clasping bases; flowering stems with alternate leafy bracts; flowers in racemes or panicles; tepals 6, in 1 or 2 whorls, sometimes fused basally; stamens 6; pistil 1, of three carpels; ovary superior or inferior; fruit a capsule or fleshy and berry-like; seeds numerous, flattened.


Notes: A small family (ca. 300 species in 8 genera—Verhoek 1998) of tropical and temperate areas of the New World. The family is centered in the sw U.S. and Mexico but ranges from the c U.S. to Panama, the Caribbean Islands, and n South America (García-Mendoza & Galván 1995; Verhoek 1998). About 200 of the species are in the diverse genus Agave. Members of the family have been variously treated in the past, e.g., as part of the Amaryllidaceae or Liliaceae. Alternatively the Agavaceae has been considered in a broader sense (e.g., 550 species in 17 or 18 genera— Verhoek & Hess 2002) to include taxa now treated in such families as the Dracaenaceae and Nolinaceae. However, molecular studies (e.g., Eguiarte et al. 1994; Bogler & Simpson 1995, 1996; Fay et al. 2000) support recognition of a narrower, monophyletic Agavaceae in the order Asparagales. The superficially similar Nolinaceae, previously treated as part of the Agavaceae, is here recognized as a separate family (see note in key to genera and discussion under Nolinaceae). Recently, the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG II 2003) suggested either submerging the Agavaceae into a very broadly defined Asparagaceae or alternatively recognizing AGAVACEAE 408 them as a separate family. A number of species of Agavaceae (e.g., Agave and Yucca species) have been used as a source of food and drink both by native peoples and commercially (e.g., tequila production). Species of Agave, Hesperaloe, and Yucca are used as ornamentals. Agave, Furcraea, and Yucca are sources of fiber for cordage and other purposes, and steroidal sapogenins from Agave and Yucca have been used as soap, in folk medicine, and in making oral contraceptives (Gentry 1982; Judd et al. 1999; Verhoek & Hess 2002). Family name from Agave, AGAVE, MAGUEY, or CENTURY-PLANT, a genus of ca. 200 species (Reveal & Hodgson 2002) native from the s United States to tropical South America. Agave species are the source of fiber (sisal hemp and henequen), pulque (a Mexican “beer”), and the distilled liquors mescal and tequila. Based on archaeological records, it is known that Agave species have been used for food and fiber for at least 9,000 years (Callen 1965; Gentry 1982; Irish & Irish 2000). The common name, CENTURY PLANT, results from the monocarpic (= flowering only once and then dying) habit of some species. Such a plant may grow vegetatively for many years or even decades (but probably not a century) before putting all its energy into a massive burst of flowering—the parent plant then dies as its seeds mature (Burrows & Tyrl 2001). Agave americana L., (of America), the CENTURY- PLANT or AMERICAN CENTURY-PLANT, native to the sw U.S. and Mexico, is cultivated in East TX and can long persist (but apparently does not escape); it has large glaucous-gray leaves with a long (2.5–5 cm) terminal spine and a paniculate inflorescence 5–7 m tall. (Greek: agave, noble or admirable, in reference to the handsome appearance when in flower) (subclass Liliidae— Cronquist; order Asparagales—APG II)