Agave is a genus of about 270 recognized species of succulent plants in the family Asparagaceae. They are native to the arid and semiarid regions of the Americas, particularly Mexico, and the Caribbean. Agaves are popular as ornamental plants, as well as sources of food, beverage, medicine, and fiber. The leaves, stalks, flowers, and the sap all are edible. One of the most commonly grown species is Agave americana, also known as Century Plant. The common name refers to the long time that plant takes to flower.
All Agaves are characterized by succulent or leathery leaves that form rosettes from just 6 inches (15 cm) to more than 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter. The leaves vary in size, shape, texture, and colors. Leaf margins are usually lined with teeth and tipped with a hard, sharp spine. A few species have leathery, unarmed leaves. When the plant matures, a tall, branched, or unbranched stalk grows out from the center of the rosette and produces a large number of long-lasting flowers. In some species, the inflorescences can reach more than 33 feet (10 m) in height. Flowers are shortly tubular, in shades of white, yellow, and green, and produce capsule fruits.
Most species are monocarpic. After the development of fruit, the rosette dies. However, throughout the lifetime, most of the Agaves produce rhizomatous suckers that grow into new plants. A few Agave species are polycarpic and can flower several times during their life.
The name of the genus derives from the Greek word “agavos,” meaning “noble, admirable or splendid.”
Photo by Joel Formales
- Growing Conditions for Agave
- General Care for Agave
- How to Propagate Agave
- Pests and Diseases of Agave
- Toxicity of Agave
- However, with a bit of care you can make your home hospital to the desert agave plant.
- Backyard tequila? Planting the blue succulent, Agave tequilana
- Century Plant
- Planting and Care
- The Century Plant – It’s Bloom Time Again | Myrtle Beach Sun News
- Agave americana
- Ask Mr. Smarty Plants
- Related posts:
Growing Conditions for Agave
Agaves grow best in hot, dry climates, but they can also be grown in colder climates in pots if given winter protection.
These plants require full sun to part shade. If you are growing Agaves indoors, choose a bright, sunny window with as much sun possible. Plants that are grown in low-light conditions become etiolated. Agave plants love going outside from spring to fall. Too much direct sunlight, when plants are not acclimated, can cause sunburn.
Agaves will tolerate most soils as long as they have good drainage, but their preference is sandy or rocky soil.
During the growing season, Agave plants like warm temperatures, while in winter, when resting, they like cooler temperatures. Most of them are only cold hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8a to 9b, 10 to 30 °F (-12.2 to -1.1 °C). A few species, like Agave parryi, are hardy down to USDA hardiness zone 5a, -20 °F (-28.9 °C).
You can grow Agaves in any size container because they are shallow-rooted and do not need much soil. Be sure that your container has at least one drain hole.
General Care for Agave
Most Agaves are easy to grow and take little care once established.
Mature plants are very drought tolerant. From spring to fall, water thoroughly your Agave when the soil mix becomes dry. In winter, water sparingly about once a month. Overwatering may encourage fungal root rot. When you are first establishing an Agave plant outdoors, water once or twice a week.
Plants in containers require more frequent watering than those in the ground.
Give your Agaves a small amount of fertilizer in the spring during the first two years. Established plants seem to take care of themselves. Since feeding may encourage Agaves to bloom, it may lead to premature death.
When the pot becomes full of roots, it has become pot-bound. If you notice you Agave becoming pot-bound, repot it with new soil in a new pot that is just slightly larger than the old one. Give the plant a week or so to readjust, before you water it again. Repotting Agave can be tricky because of the sharp spikes and spines. Always wear gloves when you repot an Agave as the sap could burn.
Typically, Agave plants do not need pruning unless they have any dead or diseased leaves.
The leaves are quite strong. To prune them, use strong shears, a long sharp knife, or a curved pruning saw that are sharp to minimize any tearing and injury to yourself.
When pruning an Agave, always wear heavy gloves, pants, long-sleeved shirts, and safety glasses to protect your skin and eyes from the leaf teeth, sharp spines, and contact with the sap.
How to Propagate Agave
Since it can take years to produce seeds, Agaves are usually propagated by offsets.
Agaves are easy to propagate by removing the offsets that develop around the base of an established plant. Some Agaves also produce small offsets on the flower stalks. Separate the offsets from the mother plant and remove all broken or damaged roots with a sharp knife. Remove only offsets that have developed in a plant with several leaves. Allow the offsets to dry for one week and plant them in a pot with a well-draining soil mix. Water when the soil is dry. Roots will typically appear in two to three weeks.
Agave seeds are black, flat and vary in size. The germination will be better if they are fresh. Sow the seeds in spring in a container with well-draining soil. Place the planting container in a warm place with bright, indirect sunlight and keep the soil moist until germination that usually takes two to three weeks. The seedlings can be transplanted to individual pots when they have two or three leaves.
Pests and Diseases of Agave
Snout weevils are the most common pests of Agave. If your plants have snout weevils, the only solution is to remove the plants and throw them away.
Mealybugs and scale insects attach to the leaves and suck the juices out of then. You can remove these insects with a cotton ball dipped in some isopropyl rubbing alcohol.
Agaves can be susceptible to bacterial and fungal rots if exposed to too much moisture and humidity. Yellowing and shriveled leaves that are easy to break off is a sure sign of root rot. Use an antifungal agent occasionally to prevent infection. Remove already infected plants to prevent spread.
Toxicity of Agave
Although these plants have been in use as food for centuries, some Agave species contain toxic compounds that can cause mouth, throat, or skin irritation. They are mildly toxic to cats and dogs.
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ou may have heard of the desert agave plant. If you have ever had tequila, you have had one of the extracts from this New World plant. The agave plant also has a bit of bite, however. It has been known to cause a nasty dermatitis if you ingest the wrong part. Some who have tasted its wrath have continued to experience painful rashes up to a year afterwards.
Because of this and its Western desert appearance, the agave makes for a compelling houseplant. The agave is not necessarily well suited to the indoors; it much prefers the dry, savageness of the desert to the climate controlled interiors of most homes.
However, with a bit of care you can make your home hospital to the desert agave plant.
Before we launch into our recommendations for the proper care of the agave, we should first get clear about what we mean when we say “agave.” There are actually several varieties of this desert plant, from our American agave to the various other versions of the plant that grow throughout the Americas. Our recommendation will focus on the American variety although they are likely to apply to most of the other agaves as well.
The agave Americana is a desert shrub that blooms from the ground. It has a central phallic protrusion surrounded by a bouquet of stiff sword-shaped leaves with light green interiors and yellowish fringes. Many but not all agaves have similar configurations.
Warning: Keep the Agave away from children and pets: If you have small children, you should keep your agave plant out of their reach as the course leaves may injure small hands. If the agave’s spade leaf cuts deep, this may cause blood vessels to burst and bruising to occur around the wound. Keep the agave plant up and out of reach of our little friends if they are not yet of the age to follow directions closely.
Since the agave is a desert plant, the lighting requirements are as you might expect–lots of light. Lots and lots of light! You cannot overexpose your agave.Lighting Requirements
The one exception here is if you kept your agave in a darker portion of your home and have now decided to move it in front of a sunny window or out on a porch. The only time agaves are sensitive to light are when you have habituated them to lesser amounts of light. In these cases, you should slowly increase the amount of light over the course of a couple of weeks until your agave has had the chance to re-acclimate. Do this by moving your agave to the sunny area for a few hours at first and then returning it to its former area. Slowly increase the amount of time until it remains in the sun permanently.
As long as you always remember you are dealing with a desert plant, you will be okay when it comes to the agave plant. You should give it a substantial watering, then, wait until the soil is close to completely dry at every time of year except for winter. In the winter, the agave goes into hibernation. You should wait for the soil to completely dry out during this period before giving it an intense shower and waiting again.
You will need to repot your agave every two to three years as it grows. Repotting is simple as long you remember the ratio to keep. Add two thirds potting soil to one-third course sand. This will mimic the agave’s natural environment.
The Hundred-Year Agave
The agave plant’s moniker as the hundred-year flowering plant is not wholly true. If you are a very diligent caretaker and if you provide it with perfect conditions you will find that the agave will flower more often than once a century for you. However, it has never been known to do so indoors in an apartment.
Backyard tequila? Planting the blue succulent, Agave tequilana
For most garden plants, flowering is a sign of renewed life. That’s not the case with the succulent blue agave (Agave tequilana). Like other agaves, tequilana flowers only at the end of the plant’s life. A 15-foot asparagus-like stalk emerges from the center, sending out puffballs of flowers at the top. The mother plant then dies, but not before producing pups at its perimeter.
Most blue agaves never get to that stage, however. The sugar-rich sap that develops prior to flowering can be fermented into the alcoholic drink called pulque; the heart, or pina, is used in the production of tequila.
Although blue agave does grow well at sea level, it prefers the higher altitudes of its homeland, the 4,500-foot highlands of Jalisco state in western Mexico, where it develops its unique flavor. Like French wine varieties, tequila made from Jalisco blue agave lends qualities that reflect where and how it was produced, and it comes with a registration number that certifies its place of origin.
As a landscape design element, blue agaves can be a dream. The plants are symmetrical, drought tolerant, slow-growing (which translates to less maintenance), able to thrive on hillsides — and beautiful. The spiny tips, able to pierce the flesh to the bone, are the biggest drawback. Likewise the juice of the flesh can cause skin irritations similar to that of poison ivy. When planting it, gardeners will want to wear leather gloves and wrap the leaves in cardboard.
At the Stanford Avalon community garden in Los Angeles, Norma Garcia picked up a blue agave leaf nearly 3 feet long that she planned to roast on a dry, hot griddle. Once she had burned the outside, she would juice the flesh, getting about 2 cups of liquid from the leaf.
Water and cold are the two primary dangers to blue agave. Protect from frost, and drape a blanket over plants if they have been exposed to frost for more than a few days. Water weekly for the first month after planting, letting the soil dry out. After that once-a-month watering is adequate spring through fall; do not water at all during the winter.
Blue agaves typically live a half-dozen years before flowering, but this final bloom can be postponed for 20 years or more if the plant is kept thirsty.
Other agave species are more readily available, but you can find blue agave online or through Worldwide Exotics, a nursery in Lake View Terrace, and through San Marcos Growers. Some were even spotted over the weekend at a Home Depot.
The Global Garden, our series looking at multicultural L.A. through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays.
Century plant is the common name usually associated with Agave americana. While there are over 200 species of agave that vary greatly in size and color, century plant is one of the most impressive and show-stopping. Not only does this plant look great in the landscape, it’s a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plant.
The plant’s common name is a bit misleading; while many people think it means these plants live for—or bloom after—100 years, it actually matures much faster. Century plants generally take between 8 and 30 years to flower.
Once the plant has reached maturity, a central stem grows up to 20 feet tall. Pale yellow or white blossoms appear atop this branched flower spire during summertime. Most century plants will die after they flower, although the spineless century plant (Agave attenuata) flowers multiple times a year.
Century plant is quite striking, with large succulent leaves that are greenish-blue color and boldly textured. The leaves are very large, reaching up to 6 feet long and 10 inches wide. The spread of the mature plant is quite an impressive sight for any landscape—up to 12 feet.
Thanks to the sharp spines at the end of each toothed leaf, these plants need to be planted well away from where anyone may brush up against them. Century plant should be planted at least 6 feet away from areas where people and pets are walking or playing.
Variegated century plant (A. americana ‘Marginata’) has striking twisted green leaves with bright yellow marginal bands. The variegated leaves look like ribbons folded and twisted across each other. Like those of the single-colored century plant, leaves can grow as long as 6 feet and 10 inches wide.
While century plant can be a dramatic addition to your landscape, its considerable mature size and sharp foliage may not be right for every yard. If you are looking for similar aesthetics, just scaled down and less pointy, check out spineless century plant (A. attenuata).
Spineless century plant is great for smaller landscapes as it doesn’t get quite as big; it reaches between 2 and 3 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet across. Individual evergreen leaves are light blueish-green and are between 1.5 and 3 feet long. These leaves don’t end in the same sharp point as those of A. americana, making it a less-hazardous choice for yards enjoyed by kids and/or pets. Pale yellow to white flowers bloom periodically throughout the year about 10 years after planting.
Planting and Care
This highly drought-tolerant and moderately salt-tolerant plant grows well in zones 9 – 11. Agave plants are easy to grow, but they do have a few “needs” to thrive. They need at least 6 hours of direct sun and well-drained soils. Planting in well-drained soil is particularly important in preventing root rot, especially in North Florida where cooler winter temperatures may add stress to your plant. If your in-ground conditions are not ideal for growing century plant, try growing it in a container where you can control the soil conditions. Just remember that century plants can get quite large; the smaller spineless century plant is a better choice for growing in a container.
Once your plant has matured you may notice multiple “pups” around the base of the mature parent plant. After the parent plant has died you can remove and transplant the pups and start the growing adventure over again.
- Agave americana ‘Marginata’ Variegated Century Plant
- Agave attenuata Spineless Century Plant
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The Century Plant – It’s Bloom Time Again | Myrtle Beach Sun News
You’ve likely heard about Century Plants—showy succulents that purportedly bloom only every 100 years.
If you haven’t seen a century plant flower, it is worth driving few miles to see the show when you hear about one nearby.
A mature Century Plant can grow to 10 ft. wide and 6 ft. high. Locally they bloom during June and July when a bloom stalk shoots up more than 20 feet from the center of a rosette of blue-gray sword-shaped leaves. Bell-shaped flowers open their way up the towering stalk. Blooms range in color from green to yellow to white. From beginning and end of the bloom process extends beyond June and July, stretching to months.
Century Plant is the common name and a misnomer for the Agave (ah-GAH-vee) americana we typically see growing in local yards. Fortunately, we do not have to wait 100 years to see the plant bloom. The local species matures with four to six foot leaves and blooms in 10 to 20 years. They are monocarpic, which means they die after flowering. However, the plant leaves behind offsets to continue the life cycle—live, bloom and die.
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Similar but tropical species in warmer drier climates may grow only as tall as a few inches and bloom in four years, or as tall as 12 feet and bloom in 60 years.
Most Agave species are indigenous to Mexico, with a few species native in semi-arid and dry southwestern U.S. and the West Indies. Generally, the Agave prefers a drier location than South Carolina, but it does well in the warmer coastal areas of the state. In the right location the species is carefree and little short of bullet-proof.
Site requirements include porous well-drained soil and full sun. Look for a sunny dry spot in your yard. It doesn’t matter if nothing else grows there. Although temperatures in the low teens may damage some leaves during winter, the Agave is hardy down to 12° F. Tropical Agave species are not winter hardy in our climate zone.
South Carolina weather provides more rain and humidity than the Agave’s native dry climate. As a result, especially after extended periods of clouds and rain, leaves may develop black or brown spots, possibly ringed in yellow. This is fungus. Treat it with fungicide. Remove and dispose of badly infected leaf parts or entire leaves. Help prevent disease by removing any leaves rotting from cold damage.
Agave leaves are densely fibrous. Use a serrated knife to cut them. The bigger and older the plant, the harder it is to remove its leaves with gardening tools. By the time an agave blooms and dies, a chainsaw is the tool of choice to remove the depleted plant remains.
Agave americana readily produces offshoots, some as far away as 15 feet from the original plant. Offshoots can be a problem to remove if they are tucked into a garden filled with other plants. The situation is easy to prevent by growing your specimen in a pot. If you want clones of your original plant to give away or use elsewhere, in time suckers will develop in a pot at the base of the mother plant. They can be removed and grown separately. The alternative is to grow an Agave in a dedicated or open area and allow suckers to freely crop up.
As spectacular as agave can be in the yard, and as easy as it is to maintain, there are some aspects of the plant that may prove difficult for gardeners and homeowners.
Leaves have sharp edges and thorn-like tips. This exposes children and pets to an element of danger. Although the thorn-like leaf tips can be pruned off, the enduring stiff sharply edged leaves remain a threat to people and pets.
The sap from an Agave can be highly irritating to the skin, causing intense itching and a rash. Wear gloves and protective clothing when pruning, repotting, digging or disrupting a plant.
Keep your eyes and ears open for the location of a blooming Agave during the next couple of months. Once you see the spectacle you’ll be glad you did.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at [email protected]
The Agave americana also goes by the common names of American aloe or century plant. It is part of the Asparagaceae family and can be found in areas that range from South America to Mexico. It’s also known as Agave cactus, but it is not a cacti plant, just has some similarities.
It is an evergreen perennial succulent that can grow to a height of 1-1.5m. This is a plant that is hardy as it is able to tolerate low temperatures but cannot survive frosts.
The plant can live for up to 10 – 30 years, not quite a century.
Foliage: The foliage of the Century plant consists of rosettes that are rigid but rather fleshy along with leaves that have spiny edges. It is gray-green in color.
There is also the Agave americana marginata (variegated ) variety that displays green leaves with yellow edges which I find more attractive.
Flowering: The flowers of the Agave americana is green-yellow in color and can grow up to 8cm in length in clusters. These flowers grow on a large stem that reaches heights much taller than the actual plant.
This species is monocarpic which means it will only flower once in its lifetime then the plant dies. The lower stem will produce pups that can be removed and propagated.
Displaying: As this is a plant that requires full sun it will need to be displayed in a spot that has full sun and is also sheltered. It is commonly found in Architectural City and Courtyard Gardens along with Coastal Patios and containers.
Due to the size of the plant, it can be placed in a container but this would have to be a considerable size. It’s best suited for conservatories, large hallways and large buildings because of its size.
During warmer months the Century plant will appreciate being placed outdoors.
Care level: This is a plant that is relatively easy to care for. Due to its habitat it is capable of handling warm, dry areas and due to the fact that it only needs moderate watering during the summer and nearly no watering in the winter, maintenance is simple.
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Friday – April 30, 2010
From: Sunrise, FL
Topic: Transplants, Cacti and Succulents
Title: Does cutting off the budding agave bloom save the plant from Sunrise FL
Answered by: Barbara Medford
I have an Agave(century plant) just starting its long flower stalk. I have read the mother plant will die after flowering. Can I cut off the stalk before it flowers to save the plant? If not, how do i get the seeds to plant another. I do have several small “pups” around the mother plant. I really love this huge plant and don’t want to lose it, but at the same time I would like to see it flower. Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
No, cutting off the stalk of buds before the agave blooms is not likely to save the plant. The reason Century Plants are called that is that it takes them up to 40 years (but not a century) to bloom. And the reason for that is that the agave is native to very dry and forbidding desert areas where water is scarce, the sun is unforgiving and the soil not much better. Every plant is driven by its own genetics to reproduce those genes. In order to do that, every plant must bloom and manufacture seed. This takes an enormous amount of energy; by the time you see the bloom stalk emerging, the plant is already on its way to dying. The blooms represent many years of work to reproduce, and if you cut off the bloom, you lose both the incredible sight of a blooming Century Plant, but also the plant, which you were going to do anyway.
In our Native Plant Database, there are nine plants with the common name “Century plant.” All are members of the genus Agave, and not a single one is native to Florida, or even close. Agave americana (American century plant) has these propagation instructions on our website page:
Propagation Material: Seeds
Description: Division by offshoot of pups, seed
Commercially Avail: yes
Maintenance: Removal of old lower leaves or dead plants can be difficult due to size and leaf tip spines.
So, you see, you answered part of your own question when you mentioned the “pups” around the present plant. You can take them out and transplant them now or wait until the blooming is ended, so you don’t have to worry about damaging the blooming plant as you dig out the offspring. Just heed the warning to be careful about where you transplant those babies, they will not always be babies. When they grow up, they need to be somewhere that they will not hurt passersby like your children, your pets and yourself. As they get older, they are very difficult and dangerous to move.
From the Master Gardeners of the University of Arizona, Pima County Cooperative Extension, we found this information page on Century Plant. From Floridata, of all places, more information on Agave americana.
To quote from one of our own previous answers:
“Agaves produce new smaller plants around their base. All you need do is remove the pups from the mother plant using a trowel or knife and put them in smaller pots with the same kind of soil mixture that your original plant has been thriving in. If you don’t know what the original is growing in, nurseries carry “cactus mix” potting soil which is grittier and more like the desert ground the plants are used to. Keep them watered, but let the soil dry a bit between waterings so they don’t rot. These pups can have very long roots that connect them to the mother plant, but you can break them off to about the same length as the height of the plant or whatever will fit in your new pot. Even if you think you have lost too much of the root, pot it up anyway and see what happens. Agaves are very hardy and forgiving plants!”
From the Image Gallery
American century plant
American century plant
American century plant
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The charismatic megaflora reproduces just once and dies.
You never know when you’ll sprout a giant asparagus spear from your heart. This is what agave plants decide to do — out of nowhere — after sitting quietly in your yard for fifteen or twenty years. In Austin, Texas, agave plants are a static detail on the landscape — you find them arranged out front of your favorite mid-priced Mexican restaurant, trapped in a traffic island between a Bed Bath & Beyond and a Whataburger, groomed into oversized pineapples in grandma lawns. I have two of them in my yard and didn’t even realize it until one poked me in the leg.
The agave, beautiful though it may be, can lull you into a sense of complacency. One day you wander past the agave slumped against your mailbox like a drunk, and it’s waving a telephone poll–sized asparagus spear at the heavens. I’m not being metaphorical about European colonization in the Americas or anything with this asparagus thing. It looks like an asparagus spear, thick as a tree trunk, that could be served at a farm-to-table restaurant for gods — jutting out of the center of a lazy agave. You say aloud, “That’s weird.” And the guy who lives in a camper van in your neighbors’ driveway tells you, “Did you know agaves are related to the asparagus?”
How does this make sense?
Agave (genus Agave) is a species of 200 plants in the Asparagaceae family. Native to Mexico, the southwestern U.S., and the Caribbean. The most popular type of agave is most well known for its use in the production of tequila, mezcal, and agave nectar (a sweetener). The century plant, or maguey, species of agave is most commonly recognized as a landscape decoration. The agave’s leather-like leaves are distinctive for their spiny prickles. Agaves grow in a symmetrical rosette shape; some stay tight and spherical, while others become floppy and unwieldy. Under the right conditions an agave can grow up to 20 feet in diameter, about the size of a bouncy castle. Most are content to live in pots or decorate grandmas’ lawns. Beyond all that, agaves are a mass of contradictions.
Number one: An agave is not a cactus.
Often confused for a cactus because it is prickly and lives in the desert, I guess is the reasoning, agaves are not cacti — they’re a whole separate type of plant from a different clade. Like the aloe — which they are also not — agaves have fat leaves that thin out and are kinda spiny. Some agaves produce sap that you can use to make pulque — a fermented, alcoholic beverage that predates tequila by a few millennia. Mayahuel, the Nahuatl goddess of agave, served pulque from her 400 breasts. She dated Quetzalcoatl for a while. Mayahuel was not a cactus either.
Number two: Agaves lie about their age.
Though they are also known as century plants, most agaves only live for fifteen to thirty years. Opinions vary at the garden center, but you might be able to extend an agave’s life by trimming its lower leaves — keeping only the leaves near its top, or the center of its rosette. Freshly pruned, agaves look like over-sized supermarket pineapples. Whether or not this tactic will work is really for the agave in question to decide. Once an agave has sprouted flower buds from its agave trunk, its transformation into a whole new plant is complete — and all you can do is help get the plant’s affairs in order. No matter what you do, you’re looking at a plant that will outlive a house cat or two. Give or take.
Number three: Agaves are not asparaguses.
The agave is part of the asparagus family, and yet it is not an asparagus. Near death, agaves transform decades’ worth of energy into an enormous asparagus death spear, as tall and sturdy as a cell phone tower tree. With a big burst of high-weirdness, the agave makes its last stand. Like the agave, the common dinner-table asparagus is part of the plant group monocots, or monocotyledons. They have only one seed leaf (cotyledon). A lot of people have a lot to say about this subject. My favorite definition comes from Dave’s Garden:
A cotyledon is basically the first leaf that sprouts from a seed. Monocots have one, and dicots have two. Big deal. Some plants have one leaf to start their lives out with, and some have a pair. Seems like too little a difference to base an entire plant classification system upon. But then, I suppose we have to start somewhere.
So there you go.
Other monocots include orchids, most types of grass, palms, lilies, and the pineapple. Asparaguses are long-distance relations from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
An agave only reproduces once, right before it dies. The process of reproducing once — flowering, setting seeds — and dying is called monocarpy. Throughout its lifetime, an agave stores up all of its energy, waiting for the right time to spread its seeds and reproduce. It hunkers down, holding all of its energy in its heart, weathering years of drought and times of heavy rain — and when it rains in the desert, it’s like all the sky demons decided to dump out their above-ground pools at once. Then, for reasons of its own, the agave grows a massive, flowering asparagus spear out of its heart.
When the agave’s asparagus tree flowers, the agave hosts a pollination sex party. Nectar-feeding bats, ants, hawkmoths, beetles, and doves arrive to spread agave pollen and seeds. When it dies, the agave’s asparagus spear crashes to the ground, discarding seed pups willy-nilly to produce more agave plants. Or flatten a Subaru Outback in a South Austin cul-de-sac.
Tonight we dine on giant yard vegetables.
Clearing out a dead agave is a massive pain. In addition to their prickly leaves, agaves have dense root systems. If left to rot, the blue-gray leaves will become an unwieldy pile of white and crumbly plant decay, like a fluffle of bunniculas had an agave hoedown. Dead agave piles also seem to attract old Doritos bags. If a teenager can find sustenance in it, look for the discarded remnants in the nearest agave corpse. In my neighborhood, there’s a big dead one wrapped around a cactus that’s about to die that’s also wrapped around a mailbox. This same house is always putting out boxes of old karate trophies, like someone is going to take them.
Bats and agaves are believed to have evolved together. Long-nosed bats, which are an endangered species, feast on agave nectar. The bats roll around in the pollen grains. When they fly off to find more food, they transfer new pollen — promoting cross-fertilization. Here’s an explainer from Bats Magazine:
Both the plant and the bat benefit from this relationship, and therefore are said to be mutualists. Scientists believe that this association is the result of the coevolution of bats and plants and that the dependence is so strong that the plants could not reproduce without the intervention of the bats, which would starve to death if the plants were not present. This relationship seemingly is quite sensitive to disturbance.
Tequila production is one such disturbance because it endangers the sustainability of long-nosed bat populations and agaves. Tequila, which is produced from the heart of the agave azul, requires harvesting agaves before they flower. So, while the death of so many century plants in my neighborhood is tragic, it is also beautiful because it’s keeping a bunch of long-nosed bats from starving.
The web of life is a tangled thing and has connections everywhere. To our current understanding, there’s no other planet as rich with life as ours. Sure, there could be some phosphorescent fish swimming beneath the frozen seas of Europa or tardigrade-like critters clinging to water-vapor geyser on Ceres. If the agave’s asparagus death spear tells us anything, however, it’s that life is short and precious — quiet bonds exist between all living things — and it’s never too late to get weird.
Century plants in bloom, with their lofty flower spike, grow a couple feet each day and reach more than 20 feet high.
The blooms are amazing to see, if you are lucky enough to come across one. You see, it may take more than a decade until one finally blooms.
The century plant (Agave americana) has been around for many centuries. It can be found throughout most of Florida and California. It also grows in southern Texas and Louisiana. American Indians used it for soap, food, fiber, medicine and weapons.
Century plants are used in Florida landscapes. They consist of a tight rosette of stiff, sword-shaped leaves. The twisting leaves are capable of growing up to 6 feet long and 10 inches wide. The plant as a whole will grow quite large with a height of 6 to 8 feet and a spread of up to 10 feet. Stiff spines, located on the tips of the leaves, are very sharp and should be removed to protect children and pets.
There are two varieties of century plants that are commonly used in landscapes. The original variety has blue-green foliage and a coarse, upright appearance. The “Marginata,” popular in many Central Florida landscapes, has twisted green leaves with bright yellow bands along the leaf margins. The stripes give the plant the appearance of a giant striped ribbon.
Tolerant of heat and drought, century plants are easy to care for. They prefer to be planted in full sun but can easily adapt to partial shade. Favored for use in rock gardens, they may also be used in a landscape as a border or accent plant. In a home landscape, they are not usually planted in mass because of their size. But if you have the room in your landscape for more than one, make sure you space them 3 to 5 feet apart.
Century plants will take many years to bloom, though not quite a century as the name implies. On average, it takes at least 10 years for the plant to save enough energy to produce the enormous flower spike. Some, however, may bloom sooner. The flower spike, often mistaken as a medium-size tree when fully grown, can reach a height of 20 feet or more. It grows quickly, sometimes a couple feet each day. Some spikes may need supplemental support to stay upright.
When the flower spike finally reaches its maximum height, it will bloom. The flowers are pale yellow to white in color. Don’t blink, because the flower spike grows fast and doesn’t last for long.
Although the bloom of the century plant is a natural phenomenon, it is also the sign of demise. The plant expends so much energy producing the bloom that it dies soon after. Nevertheless, when it dies, it will hopefully send out new “baby” plants from the base.
Century plants can make a dramatic statement in your landscape. They have outstanding ornamental features. For more information on the century plant or any other landscape questions, contact Osceola County master gardeners, who are available from 2 to 5 p.m. Mondays, 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and all day Thursdays. You can reach them at 321-697-3000.