Although much of the mesquite grassland of the Puerto Vallarta region has been tamed into farmland, a number of its more interesting plants do grow in the more arid districts, notably on the Jalisco Coast, not far south of the town of El Tuito.
Among the mesquite grassland’s most interesting species is the maguey (mah-GAY), or century plant, so-called because it’s said to bloom once, then die, after 100 years of growth—although its lifespan is usually closer to 50 years. The maguey and its cactuslike relatives (such as the very useful mescal, lechugilla, and sisal, all of the genus Agave), each grow as a roselike cluster of leathery, long, pointed gray-green leaves, from which a single flower stalk eventually blooms.
Century plants themselves, which can grow as large as several feet tall and wide, thrive either wild or in cultivated fields in ranks and files like a botanical army on parade. These fields, prominently visible from National Highway 15 west of Guadalajara, are eventually harvested, the leaves crushed, fermented, and distilled into fiery 80-proof liquor known locally as raicilla, some of the most renowned of which is made near the town of El Tuito.
Watch for the mesquite grassland’s candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphillitica), an odd cousin of the poinsettia, also a Mexico native. In contrast to the poinsettia, the candelilla resembles a tall (two- to three-foot) candle, with small white flowers scattered upward along its single vertical stem. Abundant wax on the many pencil-sized stalks that curve upward from the base is useful for anything from polishing your shoes to lubricating your car’s distributor.
Equally exotic is the Jatropha dioica, called the sangre de dragón (blood of the dragon), which also grows in a single meaty stem, but with two-inch-long lobed leaves with small white flowers. Break off a stem and out oozes a clear sap, which soon turns blood-red.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition