Today, March 4th, we visited the University of Guanajuato, Irapuato-Salamanca campus. This campus has a Division of Life Sciences which contains a room dedicated to Penn State. When we visited the campus, and the Penn State room, we learned about the importance of key endemic plants of the region, specifically cacti, mesquite, and agave.
Cacti, which originated in Mexico, have become endangered. In the U.S. there are roughly 1,600 species, 60% of which are from Mexico. In Mexico, genetic research is being conducted in laboratories to conserve cacti in the wild. Many endangered cacti species are being cultivated in labs in order to preserve their ongoing existence. Cacti are biologically important to Guanajuato, and Mexico as a whole, because they greatly enhance the country’s biodiversity and are capable of surviving in arid climates, which is a growing ecosystem in Mexico due to climate change. Cacti are economically important to the region because they are harvested and sold as food. Also, they are sold as ornamental plants for decoration and to collectors. Some cacti species are endangered and therefore poached for collectors.
The mesquite tree is the most important plant in central Mexico; it is important both biologically and economically. Mexico is 60% dry desert, an ecosystem favorable for the growth of mesquite because it requires very little water to survive due to its ability to fixate nitrogen. Mesquite is a fertility island, harboring life for organisms such as birds, insects, microorganisms, and plants that grow around the base of the tree. It produces ethanol and also removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mesquite is also capable of preventing soil erosion. Unfortunately, the people of northern Mexico, those who cannot use agriculture due to too arid of a climate, cut up mesquite trees to sell as firewood and for personal use without replanting them, causing a massive decline in the mesquite population in the past few decades.
Mesquite is economically important to Mexico for many reasons, having multiple uses. Products that are obtained directly from mesquite include medicinal products, firewood which is also used for furniture production, flour extracted from the veins, leaves used to feed cattle, fruit harvested from the tree, and a gummy thickening agent used in the food industry. Products that are exploited indirectly from mesquite trees include honey from bees who live on the tree and plants that grow around the base of the tree.
The most important plant to the economy of Mexico is the agave plant. It is also extremely important to the ecology of Mexico. 70% of the country’s environment is in drastic conditions due to droughts, dead soils, and contaminated water. Fortunately, the agave plant can withstand and even remediate these conditions. Economically, the various agave species produce more then 100 products that are sold within the country and exported, mainly tequila. Some of the other products made from agave species include food, construction materials, medicine, mezcal (boiled agave, similar to tequila), pulque (weak version of tequila), honey, sugar from the leaves, cosmetics, and handcrafts (furniture, bags, baskets).
The ecologically important aspects of the agave plant are numerous. It is capable of growing with very little water, but the most important ecological aspect of agave is that it promotes the growth of other plants. As mentioned before, 70% of Mexico is in drastic conditions. A program of reforestation and ecosystem remediation is being conducted that begins with planting agave which will rebuild soils, which, over the period of a decade, is followed by the planting of small plants and then trees. Hopefully over time this program will rebuild the ecology of the country.
It is important, both biologically and botanically, to preserve the agave genome. There are over 276 species of agave plants, however, only one is produced in large scales, blue agave, which is used to make tequila. Blue agave is exploited in great numbers while the other species grow mainly in the wild, and in small numbers. Many are in danger of becoming extinct. The National Agave Collection was created to biologically and botanically protect the agave genome. The collection is simply a field consisting of all the agave species found in Mexico.
Overall, I learned today that cacti, mesquite, and agave have had a large impact on Mexico and will continue to do so. Today’s trip to the Irapuato-Salamanca campus was excellent. We met more Mexican students today, all of which were very nice, and I look forward to spending more time with them tomorrow.
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