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Agave Gardens from the Past

Agave Gardens from the Past

Within southern Arizona, patches of agave grow: agave gardens. Although 20 different species thrive throughout the landscape, a couple of them: both native and imported from Mexico, were cultivated over a thousand years ago. Occasionally, soil berms and rock alignments border and divide the perennials. Desert vegetation shows difficulty re-establishing itself even hundreds of years later. Considered living archaeological features, some of these agave are direct genetic offspring of plants transported from Mexico and established in Hohokam gardens.

Though dates change with the inflow of new information, the Hohokam culture thrived in southern Arizona between 500 B.C. and 1450 A.D. This timeframe is subject to debate, as people lived there before 500 B.C., and many of the sites were abandoned prior to A.D. 1350. Also, several archaeologists believe the Hohokam culture did not enter the area until between A.D. 750 and 900 (Crown 1991:139-154). Of course, descendants continue to live there now.

Agave Terrace at Desert Botanical Gardens

Agave Terrace at Desert Botanical Gardens

The dates I have for agave cultivation originate from the Safford Valley in southeast Arizona. The earliest ones source from agave remains collected from roasting pits: A.D. 430 through 660. However, dates extend throughout the Hohokam culture in that area, from A.D. 750 through A.D. 1385. The latter time period corresponds with those in fields north of the Gila River (which used to flow through Phoenix). Rock alignments and soil modification are thought to have accompanied the gardens during this era (Neely and Doolittle 2004:128-129).

Rock piles, linear borders, bordered grids, chevrons, diversion borders, and rock terraces define many planted agave plots (Neely and Doolittle 2004:129). The photograph to the right depicts a terraced agave garden at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix Arizona. Horticulturalists altered the landscape otherwise for the perennials as well. In south-central Arizona, patches of agave grow, and very little of the natural vegetation has returned. The soil altered, making the desert’s recovery slow (Fischer 2005).

By the way, if you are ever in the Phoenix, Arizona area, I highly recommend the Desert Botanical Gardens. They have a cultural garden, which walks you through mini-gardens and settings important to numerous cultures that have enjoyed the landscape, both past and present.


Crown, Patricia L.

1991   The Hohokam: Current Views of Prehistory and the Regional System. In Chaco and Hohokam: Prehistoric Regional Systems in the American Southwest, edited by Patricia L. Crown and W. James Judge. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Fischer, Adelheid

2005   Legacies on the Land. Arizona State University Research: A Magazine of Scholarship and Creative Activity at Arizona State University (Fall 2005). Electronic Document,, accessed April 30, 2011.

Neely, James A. and William E. Doolittle

2004   Answers and Ideas. In The Safford Valley Grids: Prehistoric Cultivation in the Southern Arizona Desert, edited by William E. Doolittle and James A. Neely. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona.

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Agave Terrace at Desert Botanical Gardens by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


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