Agave – get the point!

By Ralph E. Mitchell

Many gardeners like desert-dwelling plants  in their landscapes and gardens.  One such popular plant is the agave.  Made up of over two-hundred species within the agave  family, it can become a plant collectors delight as well as a  challenge to obtain one of each!  Many agave have wicked spines which is a cautionary tale right from the get-go.  Otherwise, the agave is a notable and hardy plant suitable for many local home gardens.

Perhaps one of the most common agave in our area is Agave americana, or century plant.  It is an enormous blue-green plant growing upwards to twelve to thirteen feet wide and well over six feet tall.  At maturity, the plant sends out a tremendous asparagus-like flower stalk up to twenty-feet tall.  This maturation normally occurs after about ten years of growth and does not take a century although it may seem like it!  Sadly, once the flower fades, the mother plant dies.  However, all is not lost as she produces offsets or “pups” at the base which provides abundant propagation material.

A strong reason for collecting agave species is due to the great variation this plant offers in leaf size, shape and color.  The form may also be highly variable ranging from open, strap-like leaves to tight, twisted pincushions.  The general arrangement of agave is a rosette form made of stiff, fleshy foliage.  Toothed spines are often aligned along the edge of the leaves as well as one substantial spike at the tip.  As many varieties are “armed” with spiny foliage, keep this in mind concerning children, pets and passersby.  Some of these spines can be real eye-pokers potentially causing serious injuries.  We had a large agave at our office once that I routinely pruned the spines off to avoid nasty accidents.  I have even seen where gardeners covered the spines with  whole, blown-out egg shells to disarm these pointed menaces ornamentally.  When life gives you spines, fortunately there are spineless species of agave such as Agave attentuata aka, the spineless century plant.

Agave are very drought tolerant plants and can take a moderate amount of salt.  Well-drained soils are essential and at least six hours of sun are needed for good growth.  Poor drainage will lead to root rots.  In this case, try growing agave in containers which will pretty much guarantee high, dry plants.  While single specimens are often impressive enough by themselves as an accent, agave also display well in mass plantings and in rock gardens.  Small species may even do well in a border planting.  Agave have even been used to make impenetrable fences.

Agave are often called tough plants for tough times.  This is a fact, but like all other types of landscape plants, please “plan before you plant”!  For more information on all types of tough, drought-tolerant plants suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/files/2018/03/Plant-Clinics-Schedule.pdf.     Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or ralph.mitchell@charlottecountyfl.gov.

Resources:
Knox, G. W. (2016) Agave and Yucca: Tough Plants For Tough Times.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Gilman, E. F. (2014) Agave attentuata – Spineless Century Plant. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Century Plant (2018)  UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Christman, S. (2017) Agave Americana.  Floridata.com/Tallahassee, FL.

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