Summary of shaw's agave and its traditional use

Kumeyaay name: emally

Shaw’s Agave (Agave shawii)


Shaw’s agave is native to the coast of southern California (very southern) and Baja California Pacific. It has large green succulent type leaves that grow from 8 to 20 inches long and 3 to 8 inches wide, forming a rosette. The leaves have very sharp marginal and terminal spines and the juice of the leaf is caustic. After 20 to 30 years of growth, the plant will shoot a flower stalk 6 to 12 feet high. A cluster of yellowish to reddish flowers consisting of several umbels makes up the inflorescence. The rosette dies after flowering.


The large stalks and roots of the shaw’s agave are roasted and eaten by the Kumeyaay. Once the stalk is pried from ground with a digging stick, the base is roasted in an earth oven overnight. The leaves are dried, pounded between stones, then twisted to separate fibers, and stripped of flesh. Then the leaves are soaked, rolled on thigh, and pounded. The finished product is braided and woven. The plant fibers are used for cordage, string, rabbit nets, fishnets, quail nets, carrying nets, basketry caps for men, rabbit skin blankets, sandals and bird cages. The pounded fiber from the leaf is used as a brush. Agave fiber is also used in tanning deerskin, paint on faces, and mourning ceremony images. Agave sap is stored in ollas.


Shaw's agave is a member of the coastal sage plant community. Unfortunately, the coastal sage habitat has become very rare in southern California. Much of this biome has been paved over as Los Angeles and San Diego experienced growth. If you are interested in seeing wild shaw's agave, try a visit to Cabrillo National Monument. This federal park is located at the tip of Point Loma in San Diego and features a gorgeous example of a coastal sage plant community.