23 July 2012 by Julienne du Toit

A spiky kind of beautiful

Used for everything from livestock fodder to intoxicating tequila, the Agave, or sisal plant, that thrives in the dryland areas of South Africa has massive potential. And when flowering in early summer, they’re simply gorgeous.

Agave americana in full bloom. Photo Chris Marais

If you travel through the Karoo, you may notice a giant plant with blue-green leaves and, sometimes, a towering stalk adorned with pretty yellow flowers.


										A spectacular dryland plant with so many uses. Photo Chris Marais

This is the sisal plant, also known as Agave americana. How it came to spread out in the Karoo is still the source of some speculation.

One of the most constant stories linked to it is that it was used as ballast in ships from the Americas over a century ago.

A few plants found their way to Grahamstown and a young girl took 3 of them to Graaff-Reinet in the 1930s. That's one version. Other accounts give the year 1820.

Whatever the story, these sisal plants found the Karoo very much to their liking, so they grew well, spread fairly rapidly and are now part of the landscape.

They’re originally from the Americas, as the name suggests, and so far they’ve been nothing but useful. Farmers immediately saw their use in curbing erosion, and in droughts they’re emergency fodder for livestock.

About 10 years ago, there was great excitement when a way was found to turn these giant plants into a form of tequila.

The original tequila plant is also an Agave, but is far smaller. Machinery and serious manpower had to be employed to work with the giant plants.

You can still see the huge, disused tequila building on the northern side of Graaff-Reinet along the N9, and most locals give a little sigh of regret as they go by.

The ‘tequila’ in the Karoo had a kick like a Mexican mule and was so successful it was exported. But alas, the company ran into financial trouble for a number of reasons and closed down a few years ago.

You can still see the huge, disused tequila building on the northern side of Graaff-Reinet along the N9, and most locals give a little sigh of regret as they go by.

It doesn’t mean, though, that the plants have lost their use.

The giant stalk yields ornamental branches often used for dryland Christmas trees, and the base of the flowering stem can be turned into natural pots for plants and bird nesting logs.

One enterprising farmer’s wife near Graaff-Reinet turns the flower buds into tasty pickles.

But there’s even more potential.

The heart of the plant is high in inulin – useful for all kinds of pharmaceutical products, and of course the fibrous leaves can be turned into sisal fibre, an industry that has created 600 000 jobs in Brazil....

Category: Attractions


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