Plant Common Name
Agave, Century Plant
The genus Agave has more than 200 species of desert-loving perennials with dramatic, structurally interesting foliage. They are all from the warmer regions of the New World, mostly Mexico and Central and South America. They are beautiful ornamentals and important plants for food and utility.
Agave have fleshly leaves that form rosettes close to the ground or occasionally atop very short stout stems. The leaves may be thick and leathery, linear or sword-shaped, wide or narrow and often have sharp spiny tips. The leaves have prominent edges, often with wicked spines, hooks or exfoliating fibers, and are extremely variable in size and color. Some species are diminutive while others are monstrously huge. Color may be green, blue-green, yellow or variegated with gold or ivory and almost all are evergreen.
Flowering only occurs when plants are mature and this often takes many years. A few species flower in a few years but more often plants can take 20, 30 or even 100 years before they bloom and set seed. The flowers are bell or cup-shaped and appear in branched clusters atop tall stems. They can be very fragrant and attract lots of desert pollinators to include bats, bees, birds, and moths. The fruits are capsules that age to dark brown and split at maturity to reveal, flat, black, shiny seeds. Once a rosette flowers it dies, though many Agave leave behind suckering colonies of living rosettes, or “pups”, at the base of the parent plant. Lots of species also produce small plantlets on the flower stalk, called bulbils, which can fall to the ground, root and become new plants.
Culture and hardiness is species dependent. Some are very cold sensitive. In fact, a few will take freezing temperatures. All like hot, full sun and nutrient-poor soil with sharp drainage. Agave will not tolerate any sustained moisture at the root zone, so be cautious not to overwater container-grown specimens. These perennials make great accent plants and look impressive in large plantings with other mixed succulents. They are lovely in containers and make fine houseplants for sunny windows or conservatories. Wickedly sharp Agave should not be planted where children play because they can be quite dangerous.
Commonly planted species include the striking century plant (Agave americana), a huge specimen with spiked blue-green leaves. This Agave takes between 30 to 100 years to mature and flower. The species used in the production of tequila, the blue agave (Agave tequilana), is grown as a crop but also collected in the wild, sadly. Narrowleaf agave (Agave angustifolia) is a long-lived evergreen perennial with linear foliage, and Agave geminiflora, the twin-flowered agave, is a dramatic plant which forms large bristling pincushions of narrow, fine-textured foliage, ending in a very shape spine.