Agave (Uh-GAH-vay) is a genus of about 200 species of succulents native mainly to Mexico and the southwestern United States. They grow wild in deserts, as large ornamental plants in gardens and in agriculture as a food source, and the very versatile sisal fibers used in the manufacture of ropes, paper, fabrics and many products. Some species of agave have very fascinating edible and impenetrable properties. They are the source of a super sweet honey substitute, and agave tequilana is the source of tequila. Read on to learn all about caring for agave plants.
All About Growing The Agave
This beautiful structural plant forms large rosettes with little or no stem and a diameter of 1 to 20 feet. Most, like this agave shawii, have long pointed spines at the terminal tip of each leaf, and often along their leaf margins. These thorns often have a contrasting color, and when backlit by the sun, they seem to glow. The agaves make a spectacular architectural statement in the garden.
Agaves usually grow in shades of blue, green and silver, although some have a wonderfully colorful foliage with a creamy yellow added to the color mix. In the garden or in large containers, a single agave is a striking focal point.
Basics of caring for agave plants
The agaves thrive in full sun all day. Where summer temperatures are extremely hot, you can take a partial shade and always work well. Like most succulents, agaves are very drought tolerant and require a granular, quickly draining soil, whether planted in the ground or in large pots. Once established, they will cope well with natural precipitation. Complete dry periods without rain by watering every 2 to 4 weeks. Make sure that the soil dries well between waterings.
Agaves will thrive despite a variety of extremes, from scorching heat to frost to strong winds, drought and nutrient-poor soils. All of them are perfectly suitable for a mild winter, Mediterranean climate, although some are quite cold-resistant. Agaves are incredibly easy to grow and without problems, with the exception of a single devastating pest. More information about the weevil of the agave snout and how to prevent it can be found below.
Thorny Agaves Are Not Cacti
Many species of agave have power tips on their leaves. They must not be planted near sidewalks, nor where pets or small children are likely to play with them. In addition, agaves are somewhat toxic when eaten, so take this into account with your pets. Agaves are not cacti, but their tops perform the same functions as the thorns of a cactus. Agave Tips:
- Protect stored moisture from thirsty animals
- Break the airflow around the plant to avoid drying
- Collect dew and bring it to the plant
As the agave grows and opens from a tightly rolled bud, the thorns of the outer leaves make permanent prints on the inner leaves. These scalloped “bud imprints” can be quite decorative and intriguing.
Agave Without Thorns
Although most species of agave have power tips, some are completely devoid of thorns. These agave species are called “unarmed”. Interestingly, considering the functions of the thorns, the unarmed agave can tolerate much more shade than the prickly varieties.
Thornless agaves are wonderful fringe plants and are relatively safe to use near sidewalks.
Most agaves are monocarpic, which means that they bloom only once before they pass away. However, they take years to mature before blooming and usually form many pups
The cobs of agave flowers are huge, well above the plant, with permanent flowers that are very attractive to pollinators, including butterflies, hummingbirds and bats.
Harvesting the agave
Several types of agave are grown as agricultural crops for various purposes. The agave tequilana, the Blue agave, is the source of tequila. Several species produce super-sweet nectar that is marketed as a sugar and honey substitute for diabetics. While the agave plantations are large and modern, the plants are still harvested by hand, by growers who have passed on the knowledge of the plants for generations.
Cold-resistant agave plants
Although most agaves do not tolerate hard frost without damage, some, such as the charming agave victoria-reginae, are exceptionally cold-resistant and thrive despite winter snows and flurries. The Agave Queen Victoria is also a good choice for containers. It grows to only 18″ in diameter, with white stripes on the smooth edges of the leaves and small terminal spines.
The agave snout weevil is a small, nasty black beetle that is only 1/2 inch long and can produce a mature agave the size of a VW bus. These are slow parasites, which, fortunately, can not fly. But they are difficult to see on their plants, as they hide in the ground and among the leaves at the base of the plant. Often their first hint that they have the muzzle weevil is the complete collapse of their beautiful plants.
The most likely way for snout weevils to get into your garden is in the soil or the leaves of a new agave plant. Take the time and care to carefully examine each agave before planting it. Remove all soil from the roots and wash the roots thoroughly in a tub before planting. This way, mature worms or weevils will wall up in the tub and not in the soil or container in your garden. Then look closely at the base of the leaves and between the leaves for signs of penetration. Remove and finish any larvae or bugs you find.
Some species of agave are highly resistant to the formidable snout beetle, including Agave attenuate, Agave bracteosa‘ Agave ‘ Skarkskin’, Agave filifera and the charming agave victoria-reginae described above.
If you have any questions about growing agave, please leave a comment. I will gladly answer. Please note that there will be no new succulents until Tuesday, January 8th. I will miss you ! Have a great holiday and the New Year!