Just looking at an agave can make you feel like you’re smack dab in the middle of the desert. Their spikey, dramatically sculptural succulent leaves evoke images of endless sand and unrelenting sun. Loosely called century plants or maguey, Agave is one group of desert plants that gardeners in colder and wetter climates simply envy. And the fascinating long leaves and interesting coloration make it a gardener’s prize!
If you live in an area warm enough to grow it, century plant makes a strong accent in your garden.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Whether used indoors as a houseplant or outdoors as a small accent or border plant, Agave victoria-reginae is a real winner.
Photo Credit: James H. Schutte
With its 6-foot-long foliage, Agave americana can add big desert flavor to a landscape.
Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho
The polka dots on this Terra Nova Nurseries introduction give this agave relative its name: Spot.
Photo Credit: Terra Nova Nurseries Inc.
Native to the Southwest and arid West, these succulents aren’t very cold hardy. In fact, the vast majority does best in the dry, hot regions of the southernmost US. That means areas like Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, south Texas and Florida – USDA hardiness zones 8-9, as long as it isn’t too wet.
Masters of efficient water use, agaves will rot in wet conditions. It’s “the drier the better” for these beauties. In all but the hottest regions, they should be put where they can get the most intense, beating afternoon sun. If there’s a wall or some pavement to reflect the heat, so much the better! Rarely is it too brutal for these tough guys.
But a handful of agave varieties are even tougher – actually doing well in colder climates as far north as USDA hardiness Zone 5. Some good cold-hardy selections to try include Agave havardiana, Agave parryi ssp. neomexicana, Agave parryi (Flagstaff form), Agave toumeyana var. bella and Agave utahensis ssp. kaibabensis. Just be sure to plant these beauties in dry, very sunny sites with good drainage for the best results.
Another great aspect of agaves is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are even giants! Agave americana can produce leaves up to 6 feet long with hooked spines along the edges and a fearsome spine at the tip. When it flowers (usually after about 10 years), the flower stalk can grow 15-40 feet! While the rosette-forming agaves usually die after flowering and fruiting, the offsets (baby plants around the outside of the main rosette) will continue to grow and mature to give you even more years of enjoyment.
If 6-foot-long leaves are too big for your yard, there are lots of miniature agaves available that grow only inches, including Agave toumeyana var. bella and Agave utahensis. Try them in pots or hypertufa trough planters for a really neat effect.
The only downside with agaves is you’ll need a little patience when growing them – it can take 4-5 years to reach a large size. The plants will grow faster, however, if you fertilize them once a year in early summer with a slow-release, balanced granular fertilizer, being sure to water well after applying. Another little tip for better growth is to withhold water for 2-3 weeks during the hottest part of summer.
If your garden has been crying out for something a bit exotic, maybe an agave is just what it needs! Whether you live in Southern California or southern Illinois, the right plant can add a touch of the beautiful desert, sending you off on a relaxing mental vacation – even if it’s only for a few minutes.