Types of agave plants

Agave

Agave, (genus Agave), genus of the some 200 species of the family Asparagaceae (formerly Agavaceae), native to arid and semiarid regions of the Americas, particularly Mexico, and the Caribbean. The genus contains a number of economically important species, especially those required for the production of mescal liquors, including the blue agave (Agave tequilana) used for tequila. Sisal (A. sisalana), henequen (A. fourcroydes), and cantala (A. cantala) are significant sources of fibre and are of interest as potential bioenergy crops. The century plant, or maguey (A. americana), and blue agave are the primary sources of agave nectar, a syrupy sweetener. Additionally, a number of species are grown as ornamentals in desert landscaping.

agaveAgave plant (Agave americana) growing in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Most agaves are monocarpic, meaning that they die after flowering.ESO

Agaves are characterized by a rosette of succulent or leathery leaves that range in size from a few centimetres to more than 2.5 metres (8 feet) in length, depending on the species. Most bear spines along the edges and the tip of the leaf, for which they are occasionally confused with unrelated cacti. The leaves range in colour from pale green to blue-grey and can be variegated or striped. Many species are able to reproduce vegetatively and generate clonal rosettes at the base of the main stem or nearby via underground rhizomes; some species produce bulbils (bulblike structures that can form new plants) on the inflorescence. The plants are generally monocarpic—meaning that each rosette dies after flowering and fruiting—and most do not live longer than 30 years. The yellow, pale green, or red flowers are borne in tall branching or unbranching inflorescences that can reach more than 9 metres (30 feet) in height in some species. Each flower consists of six petals and an inferior ovary (i.e., the other flower parts are attached above the ovary) and produces copious amounts of nectar. The flowers are pollinated by bats, insects such as bees and hawk moths, or birds, depending on the species. The flowers produce capsule fruits. As an adaptation to their arid habitats, agaves use a photosynthetic pathway known as crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), in which carbon dioxide is fixed at night to limit the amount of water lost from the leaf stomata.

Caribbean agaveCaribbean agave (Agave angustifolia).El Denis Conrado

Agave plants have a long history of ethnobotanical importance, especially to the peoples of Mexico, where the genus is most diverse. Many species have strong fibrous tissue in their leaves, which makes them useful for ropes, brushes, sandals, nets, sleeping mats, and other similar items. The fibres of some species can be removed with the terminal spine of the leaf still attached, forming a type of needle and thread. In many species, the leaves of the rosette can be removed to reveal the thick stem, or “heart,” which can be roasted and eaten directly or ground into edible patties. The stem is particularly dense in carbohydrates immediately before flowering, and it is also the source of mescal alcohols and agave nectar. To prepare mescal, the sap of roasted or pressure-cooked agave hearts is fermented and distilled; different species are used for different types of mescal, with blue agave being the only species used for tequila. Similarly, agave nectar, a syrupy sweetener used as a sugar alternative, is not true floral nectar and is made by extracting, filtering, and heating the sap of the hearts of several species, notably blue agave and the century plant. Pulque, another traditional Mexican alcohol, is made by fermenting the sap of the inflorescence stalk. The raw sap of most Agave species is considered toxic and requires cooking prior to ingestion.

blue agave farmBlue agave (Agave tequilana) being grown for tequila production.gufm

Agave

Agave
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Asparagales
Family: Agavaceae
Genus: Agave
L.
Species

see text. See also full listing.

Agave is the common name and genus name of a large, botanical, New World group of succulent plants in the flowering plant family Agavaceae, characterized by large, basal rosettes of thick fleshy leaves typically with a sharp terminal point and spiny margins. One of the most familiar species is Agave americana, the American aloe, which is also known as the “century plant” because of the long time before the plant flowers.

Agave are popular as ornamental plants, as well as providing food and fiber. The flowers, leaves, stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap all are edible and some varieties of Agave are made into the alcoholic beverages mescal and tequila. The rare bloom of the century plants are a wonder to behold, for the plant prepares for a number of years for the moment when it can flower and reproduce, yielding a spike with a cyme of big yellow flowers, only to die after flowering. Ecologically, the plants provide food and water for animals.

Description

The Agave genus is part of the Agavaceae family, a group of plants that includes many well-known desert and dry zone types such as the yucca, and Joshua tree. The family includes about 550-600 species in around 18 genera, and is widespread in the tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate regions of the world. In general, Agavaceae leaves occur as rosettes at the end of a woody stem, which may range from extremely short to tree-like heights, as in the Joshua tree. The leaves are parallel-veined, and usually appear long and pointed, often with a hardened spine on the end, and sometimes with additional spines along the margins.

Members of the Agave genus are succulent plants. Members of the family Agavaceae may or may not be succulent. Also known as succulents or fat plants, succulent plants are water-retaining plants adapted to arid climate or soil conditions. Succulent plants store water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots. The storage of water often gives succulent plants a more swollen or fleshy appearance than other plants, also known as succulence.

Agaves are chiefly Mexican, but occur also in the southern and western United States and in central and tropical South America. The plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves generally ending in a sharp point and with a spiny margin. The stout stem is usually short, the leaves apparently springing from the root.

Each rosette is monocarpic and grows slowly to flower only once. During flowering, a tall stem or “mast” grows from the center of the leaf rosette and bears a large number of shortly tubular flowers. After development of fruit, the original plant dies, but suckers are frequently produced from the base of the stem, which become new plants.

It is a common misconception that agaves are a cactus. Agaves are closely related to the lily and amaryllis families, and are not related to cacti.

Along with plants from the related genus Yucca, various Agave species are popular ornamental plants.

Commonly grown species

The most commonly grown species of Agave include Agave americana (century plant), Agave angustifolia, Agave tequilanam (blue agave), and Agave attenuata.

Agave americana

One of the most familiar species is Agave americana, a native of tropical America. Common names include century plant, maguey (in Mexico), or American aloe (it is not, however, closely related to the genus Aloe). The name “century plant” refers to the long time the plant takes to flower, although the number of years before flowering occurs depends on the vigor of the individual, the richness of the soil, and the climate. When it flowers, the spike with a cyme of big yellow flowers may reach up to eight meters (25 ft.) in height. The plant dies after flowering. During its non-flowering preparation period, the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment required for the effort of flowering. The average life-span is around 25 years.

Agave americana, century plant, was introduced into Europe about the middle of the sixteenth century and is now widely cultivated for its handsome appearance. In the variegated forms, the leaf has a white or yellow marginal or central stripe from base to apex. As the leaves unfold from the center of the rosette, the impression of the marginal spines is very conspicuous on the still erect younger leaves. The tequ plants are usually grown in tubs and put out in the summer months, but in the winter require protection from frost. They mature very slowly and die after flowering, but are easily propagated by the offsets from the base of the stem.

Agave attenuata

A. attenuata is a native of central Mexico and is uncommon in its natural habitat. Unlike most species of Agave, A. attenuata has a curved flower spike from which it derives one of its numerous common names: the foxtail agave.

A. attenuata is also commonly grown as a garden plant. Unlike many agaves, A. attenuata has no teeth or terminal spines making it an ideal plant for areas adjacent to footpaths. Like all agaves, A. attenuata is a succulent and requires little water or maintenance once established.

Uses

The large flower spike of Agave chiapensis

Agaves are used for food and fiber, and as ornamental plants.

Four major parts of the agave are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap (called aguamiel—honey water) (Davidson 1999). Each agave plant will produce several pounds of edible flowers during the summer. The leaves may be collected in winter and spring, when the plants are rich in sap, for eating. The stalks, which are ready during the summer, before the blossom, weigh several pounds each. Roasted, they are sweet, like molasses. During the development of the inflorescence, there is a rush of sap to the base of the young flower stalk. In the case of A. americana and other species, this is used by the Mexicans to make their national beverage, pulque.

The flower shoot is cut out and the sap collected and subsequently fermented. By distillation, a spirit called mezcal is prepared; one of the most well-known forms of mezcal is tequila. In 2001, the Mexican Government and European Union agreed on the classification of tequila and its categories. Pure (100%) Blue Agave Tequila must be made from the Weber Blue Agave plant to rigorous specifications and only in certain Mexican states.

Although Agave americana contains a toxin and is poisonous when eaten raw, it is considered to have a sweat mild flavor when baked or made into a syrup (Herbst 2001). Agave syrup (also called agave nectar) is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, and is promoted as a healthy alternative.

Fiber is obtained from the leaves of several Agave species, including Agave rigida var. sisalana, sisal hemp, and Agave decipiens, false sisal hemp. Agave americana is the source of pita fiber and is used as a fiber plant in Mexico, the West Indies, and southern Europe.

The plants have additional uses. When dried and cut in slices, the flowering stem forms natural razor strops, and the expressed juice of the leaves will lather in water like soap. The natives of Mexico have used agave to make pens, nails and needles, as well as string to sew and make weavings. In India, the plant is extensively used for hedges along railroads. When dried out, the stalks can be used to make didgeridoos, a wind instrument.

Some agaves are used medically. Leaf tea or tincture taken orally is used to treat constipation and excess gas. It is also used as a diuretic. Root tea or tincture is taken orally to treat arthritic joints.

Ecologically, Agave species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Batrachedra striolata, which has been recorded on A shawii.

Warnings

The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect.

Taxonomy

Agave is a genus within the family Agavaceae, which is currently placed within the order Asparagales. Agaves were once classified in the lily family, Liliaceae, but most references now include them in their own family, Agavaceae. The genus Agave is divided into two subgenera: Agave and Littaea.

Agaves have long presented special difficulties for taxonomy; variations within a species may be considerable, and a number of named species are of unknown origin and may just be variants of original wild species.

Spanish and Portuguese explorers probably brought agave plants back to Europe with them, but the plants became popular in Europe during the nineteenth century when many types were imported by collectors. Some have been continuously propagated by offset since then, and do not consistently resemble any species known in the wild, although this may simply be due to the differences in growing conditions in Europe.

Gallery of Agave species or cultivars

  • Agave americana var. ‘americana’

  • Agave americana cv. ‘Medio-Picta’

  • Agave angustifolia ‘Marginata’

  • Agave attenuata

  • Agave bracteosa (Spider agave)

  • Agave deserti

  • Agave ferox

  • Agave filifera

  • Agave horrida

  • Agave inaequidens ssp. barrancensis

  • Agave lechuguilla

  • Agave palmeri

  • Agave parryi

  • Agave potatorum

  • Agave potatorum cv. ‘Kichiokan’

  • Agave schidigera cv. ‘Durango Delight’

  • Agave shawii

  • Agave sisalana (Sisal)

  • Agave stricta

  • Agave tequilana (Tequila agave)

  • Agave utahensis

  • Agave victoriae-reginae

  • Agave vilmoriniana

  • Agave wislizeni (syn. Agave parrasana)

  • Asimov, E. 2000. Reaching for better quality tequila. Journal Record. October 6, 2000. Retrieved January 2, 2008.
  • Davidson, A. 1999. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192115790.
  • Gentry, H. S. 1982. Agaves of Continental North America. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0816507759.
  • Herbst, S. T. 2001. The New Food Lover’s Companion: Comprehensive Definitions of Nearly 6,000 Food, Drink, and Culinary Terms. Barron’s Cooking Guide. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series. ISBN 0764112589.

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Different Agave Plants – Commonly Grown Agaves In Gardens

Agave plants are perhaps best known for tequila, which is made from the steamed, mashed, fermented and distilled hearts of the blue agave. If you’ve ever had a run in with an agave plant’s sharp terminal spike or ragged, toothy leaf margin, you probably remember it all too well. In fact, one of agave’s most common uses in the landscape is for privacy or basically as mass plantings of thorny unpleasant defense plants. However, grown as specimen plant, different agave plants can add height, shape or texture to rock gardens and xeriscape beds.

Different Agave Plants

Generally hardy in U.S. zones 8-11, agave plants are native to southern parts of the North America, Central America, West Indies and northern parts of South America. They thrive in intense heat and sun. Oftentimes confused with cactus because of their sharp teeth and spikes, agave plants are actually desert succulents.

Most varieties are evergreen with very little ability to handle frost. Many common varieties of agave will naturalize by forming clumps of new rosettes. This makes them ideal in mass plantings for privacy and protection. Some agave varieties however, will only produce new rosettes when the main plant is nearing the end of its life.

Many types of agave have ‘century plant’ in their common name. This is because of how long it takes for an agave plant to bloom. The long-coveted blooms don’t take an actual century to form, but it can take more than 7 years for different agave plants

to flower. These blooms form on tall spikes and are usually lantern shaped, much like yucca blooms.

Some agave varieties can produce flower spikes 20 feet (6 m.) tall that can rip the whole plant out of the ground if toppled over by high winds.

Commonly Grown Agaves in Gardens

When choosing different types of agave for the landscape, first, you’ll want to consider their texture and carefully place varieties with sharp spines and spikes away from high traffic areas. You’ll also want to consider the size agave you can accommodate. Many agave plants get very large. Agave plants do not tolerate being moved once they are established and they can’t really be pruned back. Make sure to select the right agave type for the site.

Below are some common agave plant varieties for the landscape:

  • American century plant (Agave americana) – 5-7 feet (1.5 to 2 m.) tall and wide. Blue-green, wide leaves with moderately toothed leaf margins and a long, black terminal spike at the tip of each leaf. Fast growing in full sun to part shade. Many hybrids of this agave have been created, including variegated forms. Can tolerate some light frost. Plants will produce rosettes with age.
  • Century plant (Agave angustifolia) – 4 foot (1.2 m.) tall and 6 foot (1.8 m.) wide with gray-green foliage and sharp teeth on margins, and a long, black tip spike. Will begin to naturalize as it ages. Full sun and some tolerance to frost.
  • Blue agave (Agave tequilana) – 4-5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m.) tall and wide. Long, narrow blue-green foliage with moderately toothed margins and a long, sharp brown to black terminal spike. Very little frost tolerance. Full sun.
  • Whale’s Tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) – 3-5 feet (.91 to 1.5 m.) tall and wide. Gray-green foliage with small teeth on margins and a large black tip spike. Can grow in full sun to part shade. Some frost tolerance.
  • Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae) – 1 ½ feet (.45 m.) tall and wide. Small rounded rosettes of tight gray-green leaves with small teeth on margins and a brown-black tip spike. Full sun. Note: These plants are endangered and protected in some regions.
  • Thread-leaf agave (Agave filifera) – 2 feet (.60 m.) tall and wide. Narrow green leaves with fine white threads on leaf margins. Full sun with very little frost tolerance.
  • Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) – 3-4 feet (.91 to 1.2 m.) tall. Green leaves with no teeth or terminal spike. Rosettes form on small trunk, giving this agave a palm-like appearance. No tolerance of frost. Full sun to part shade.
  • Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) – 4 feet (1.2 m.) tall and 6 feet (1.8 m.) wide. Long curled leaves make this agave seem to have octopus tentacles. No frost tolerance. Full sun to part shade.
  • Shaw’s agave (Agave shawii) – 2-3 feet (.60-.91 m.) tall and wide, green leaves with red toothy margins and a red-black terminal spike. Full sun. No frost tolerance. Quick to form clumps.

Is Agave a Cactus?

Design Pics/Valueline/Getty Images

The United States Department of Agriculture says that agave plants are members of the century plant family Agavaceae, while the perennial varieties known as cactus belong to the Cactaceae family.

Succulents

The agave plant is not a cactus, though both cactus and agave are classified as succulents, or “plants that have highly specialized anatomical features such as thick waxy cuticles, fleshy or minimal leaves, modified leaves (spines), and roots with extra storage capabilities for food and water,” according to the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service.

Flowering

The majority of the hundreds of species of agave plant are monocarpic, meaning that they flower one time during their life, then die. This includes species like the well-known century plant, Agave Americana, which may live as long as 30 years or more — but never a whole century — before flowering. Dependent on the species, the majority of cacti flower on a regular basis.

Leaves

Another significant difference between an agave and the cactus are leaves — the agave possesses leaves and the cactus does not. Many agave leaves — again, dependent on the species — are edible, provided they are cooked. However, Native Americans in years past often used extracts from the uncooked agave leaf to poison the tips of their arrows.

Agave 101, Part B: Selected Large Species

In a previous article I introduced the reader to the basics of Agave cultivation and a few of the more common species of Agave. In this one, I will touch upon several more species and add a few ideas about how to take care of these other species. This article will in no way will be able to cover all the larger Agave species there are, nor even all the ones entered in the Davesgarden.com database.

My experience with large agaves began with growing Agave americana, one of the more commonly grown species of agave (at least here in southern California). There are massive plantings of this beautiful but aggressive species all along the highways here. In some California gardens, and throughout Mexico, it is often used as a living fence. And I quickly learned why after planting a few in my old yard. It is a very easy (too easy) species to grow. Next thing I knew was this plant was everywhere, and very hard to eradicate or even to take care of (prune back, etc.). Since then I have tried to be a bit more selective on what species of Agave I let into my yard; still making repeated mistakes, however. Many of the agave species listed below are mildly invasive and some are happily solitary. However, none are nearly as nightmarish as Agave americana varieties are.

Agave americana (aka Century Plant) is a massive plant and is also very variable. There are many varieties of variegated forms in cultivation as well, with some being excellent for smaller gardens or pots, and some being too huge save for a botanical garden or ranch. The normal variety is a dark blue-grey to pale blue-grey-green and has large, sharp teeth and terminal spines. Agave americana ‘Variegata’ is a longer-leaved plant with curves and twists that look a bit like a plant that is growing underwater, following the currents. The edges of the leaves are yellow with a central green stripe. This plant tends to be far less invasive for some reason. Agave americana mediopicta is the opposite with a central yellow stripe and green margins. Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’ is similar though it has a white stripe down the middle rather than a yellow one. The mediopicta agaves sucker profusely, but tend to only around the mother plant, not ten feet away or more as the normal blue form does. Agave americana var. striata is a normal-looking form with subtle to marked variegated pale yellow striping. This plant is just as invasive and annoying as the normal blue form. Then there is a variegated form that is monstrose referred to as Agave ‘Cornelius’. Most of these are small, stunted plants, many which do not sucker at all, but there are forms (increasingly) in cultivation that do sucker heavily though just around the base of the plant.

Agave americana in landscaping in a yard in Los Angeles; growing in large numbers along highway in Los Angeles county

Agave americana variegata photos (flowering on left)

Agave americana striata photos (with author on right)

Agave americana mediopicta alba (left) Agave americana mediopicta varieties

this is Agave americana variegata monstrose (Aka Agave ‘Cornelius’)

Agave atrovirens (aka Pulque Agave)- this is a wonderfully huge species that is solitary ( no suckers!) and nearly toothless (there are on most leaves some tiny sharp black spines, but very small relative to the size of the massive leaves). Leaf color is turquoise and habit is upright and elegant. There is a huge, stiff terminal spine on each leaf so caution. This is a mid-Mexican species used as a source for Pulque (hence the name), a milky alcoholic beverage. Some tequilas are also made from this plant.

Agave atrovirens in southern California Agave atrovirens (photo DivaElena)

Agave bovicornuta (aka Cow Horn Agave) is one of the more unusual large agaves having bright green leaves. The leaves are flat, ovoid and lined with hooked, black and reddish teeth. Plants are nearly spherical in overall shape and make a wonderful landscape specimen. It is a fast growing plant and tolerates full sun well. This is, as far as I can tell, always a solitary species.

Agave bovicornuta photos

Agave mapisaga- This is another massive Mexican agave also used as a source for Pulque. My only experience with this one is seeing a rare toothless clone of it known as Agave mapisaga var. lisa at the Huntington Gardens. It is probably the largest of the agaves.

Agave mapisaga (photo equilibrium- left) Agave mapisaga ‘Lisa’ in Huntington Gardens (right)

More shots of Agave mapisaga ‘Lisa’ at the Huntinton Gardens in southern California

Agave franzosinii- some consider this a form of Agave americana, and there are several ‘forms’ of this species in cultivation, some which may indeed be some clone of Agave americana. As with many agaves that end up in cultivation, the ones most often propagated are the ones that form suckers as they are they easiest to deal with. Unfortunately suckering forms are sometimes the exception in the wild, not the norm, so the plants one becomes familiar with in cultivation are not necessarily much like the wild forms encountered in nature. This is also unfortunate in that a large non-suckering Agave can be a lot more useful as a landscape plant than one that has to be hacked back repeatedly or weeded out of the rest of one’s garden. Agave franzosinii is just such a plant–a beautiful nearly pure white-leaved species with massive, arching leaves making it a fantastic landscaping plant. However, most of the plants I have come across in cultivation are profusely sucking plants that don’t match the beauties I see in some of the well known botanical collections in southern California. Some plants sold as Agave franzosinii are a beautiful bright turquoise blue with tiny marginal teeth. These striking plants are great landscaping specimens, but my guess is they are another species or hybrid.

examples of the true Agave franzosinii in southern California

Agave franzosiniis on left and Agave americana on right

Agave franzosinii ‘imposters (left in a botanical garden and right in my own garden- both nice large Agaves, but not the real things?)

Agave guingola is one of my favorite species of agave, though it, too, has been ruined somewhat in cultivation. This is a normally solitary species with pale sea-green, huge, thick leaves with almost insignificant marginal teeth. Most plants sold in nurseries however sucker profusely and tend to have larger teeth. This southern Mexican species is somewhat cold sensitive and does get some minor leaf damage during frosts. But even temps as low as 25F did not kill mine.

Agave guingolas in the landscape and for sale at a nursery- these are the ‘normal’ solitary forms

Sadly this suckering ‘mess’ is usually the forms found in most nurseries

Agave salmiana – this is another common plant in cultivation and one of the few huge agaves with green leaves. This plant is usually distinguished by its wide, deeply fluted leaves. The variety Ferox is a bit smaller and has huge, sometimes curved, marginal teeth, and an exaggerated bend in the leaves to nearly a right angle making the plant urn-shaped. This is another source of Pulque.

Agave salmiana in botanical garden (left) Agave salmiana var. ferox ‘wide leaf’ (right)

These Agave salmiana var feroxs (aka Agave ferox) are the most common varieties of Agave salmiana seen in cultivation

This is a relatively rare variegated form of Agave salmiana var. ferox

Agave sisalana (aka Sisal) is another large, common species grown primarily for sisal, a fiber used for twine, carpets, yarns, dartboards etc. If one prunes this plant, one will encounter the fibrous nature of the leaves (not terribly unique among agaves). Making a clean cut is not always easy when I trim my plant and often some fibers remain attached to the mother plant making it impossible to pull the leaves away (very tough fibers!). It is a somewhat user-friendly species in that it has no to extremely insignificant teeth along the rubbery stiff leaves making pruning a bit less dangerous than with most other agaves. There is a nasty large terminal spine, however. This is one of the few agaves that forms a real trunk, with plants growing up to about four to five feet of trunk before flowering. This is one of the more cold sensitive species and frosts will sometimes damage the leaves a bit in my yard. It is not nearly as cold sensitive as Agave attenuata, however. No one is sure where this plant originates from and some speculate is a product of cultivation- a hybrid of two other species. Though from Mexico somewhere, Brazil grows the most Agave sisilana now, but it is grown all around the world in many tropical countries. There are several variegated forms of this species, one with stiff leaves and one with floppy ones. The stiff leaved one is a paler color, while the floppier one has deep green striping.

Agave sisalana photos

two forms of Agave sisalana variegated -stiff-leaved form on left and a drooping, slower-growing form on right (my garden)

Agave tequiliana (aka Blue Agave)- as the name suggests, this is the primary source for mescal, or tequila. This is a prolific grower and one of the fastest of all the Agaves. I got a small one for one of my planter boxes and in two years it had completely outgrown its spot, not to mention putting out dozens of suckers yearly. Keep that in mind before planting out this species in your garden. This is another variable form that comes in a nice variegated coloration, as well as a pale blue ‘miniature’ form (not really small, but smaller than the normal form). This is a dull blue-grey plant, but some develop a really deep blue coloration- these are known as Agave tequiliana ‘Weber Blue’. This is a very dangerous plant with straight, stiff leaves, an incredibly sharp terminal spine and tiny but vicsious teeth along the leaf margins that break off easily in one’s skin.

Agave tequilianas (normal on left and Weber Blue on right)

Agave tequiliana ‘Sunrise’ (variegated)- left Agave tequiliana ‘Subtilis’- right

Agave vilmoriniana, or Octupus Agave, is a very commonly grown landscape plant thanks to its nearly harmless leaves and rapid growth to landscape size. The leaves are rubbery and arching without any marginal teeth and a relatively soft, terminal spine. This one is a short-lived species, however, growing from a seedling to flowering adult in just 5 to 7 years. But it produces thousands of bulbils (baby plantlets) on the flower stalk so propagation is not a problem.

Agave vilmoriniana dying plant after flowering covered with bulbils

Agave weberi is another fairly large agave growing up to five feet tall and a foot or more wider than that. It looks initially like an Agave americana only it is somewhat greener (pale grey green in color) and has none to very tiny marginal teeth, making it one of the less dangerous of the large agaves. However it still has nasty terminal spine. There are beautiful variegated forms of this available in cultivation.

Agave weberis variegated Agave weberi

There are dozens of other huge agave species (see more examples below), but this will at least introduce the reader to some of the more common ones encountered in cultivation.

Agave avellanidens in flower (left) Agave marmorata (right)

Agave sobria (left) Agave tectas (right)

Agave ovatifolia (left) Agave ragusae (right)

Agave albescens (left) Agave cantala (right)

Agave, Bromeliads, and Succulents

Succulents are a group of plants with thick, fleshy stems, leaves or roots designed to hold water. Cacti, aloe, sedums and “hens and chicks” are just a few examples of succulent plants.

Easy to care for and drought-tolerant, succulents come in all kinds of interesting forms, textures, and colors. Because they’re adapted to survive dry conditions, they don’t need much supplemental water. In Florida’s rainy, humid climate, most grow best in containers. Start with a shallow clay or terra cotta container with drainage holes. Choose a few succulents with contrasting forms and place them in well-drained media with room to grow. For a finishing touch, top the soil surface with gravel.

Commonly mistaken for cacti or aloe plants, Agave is a separate genus with very distinct features. Native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, there are over 200 species of Agave plants.

Bromeliads are standouts for their bold, often colorful leaves and for the exotic flower spikes that many bromeliads produce. Most bromeliads are tropical or subtropical and can be grown outdoors in frost-free areas of Florida, and indoors as houseplants in any space that receives bright, diffused light.

  • Agave Lophantha
  • Agaves
  • Aloe Vera
  • Bromeliads
  • Carrion Flower
  • Century Plant
  • Crown of Thorns
  • Desert Rose
  • Dyckia
  • Echeveria
  • Epiphytes
  • Ghost Plant
  • Prickly Pear
  • Sedums
  • Soap Aloe
  • Spanish Bayonet
  • Spanish Moss
  • Succulents
  • Yucca

Introduction to the Furcraeas, the giant Agave Look-alikes

For years I have been fascinated by Agaves and have grown hundreds of them in my yard. But on one of my trips to an arboretum, I saw some huge plants I thought were Agaves, and I was surprised to find that these were NOT agaves, but members of a related genus called Furcraea. For those who are as confused as I was, here’s another interesting twist. One of the common names for Furcraea in the nursery trade is “century plant,” a name often associated with some of the Agaves, which just adds to the confusion. I never understood the reason for this common name, as neither Agaves nor Furcraeas live anywhere near a hundred years.

But Furcraeas are indeed a separate genus, differentiated biologically primarily by their distinct flower shape (bulbous versus filiform). I never cease to be amazed at the little things that can keep two very similar plants from being closely related. In general, Furcraeas are New World members of the family Agavaceae and are basically large Agaves (though there are a few Agaves larger than the largest Furcraeas.) They are non-suckering rosette plants with thick, stiff, succulent leaves. Some form tall stems while others remain stemless. Some have armed leaves (like many Agaves) while others have smooth, ‘user-friendly’ leaves. Some are variegated (though I don’t know if that is a completely ‘manufactured’ look or if plants in the wild are similarly variegated). Like most Agaves, Furcraeas are monocarpic. However since they do not sucker, this is their only shot at passing on their genetic materials so they do it quite flamboyantly. Furcraea inflorescences are very tall (up to 40 feet in some species) and produce hundreds if not thousands of bulbils, on thin branches, which fall to the ground and root–that’s the strategy, at least.

Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ flowering unopened flowers flowers

bulbils on Furcraea selloa and Furcraea permentieri (photo Jay9)

Bulbil photos (second photo by cactus-lover)

Wikipedia lists dozens of species of Furcraea, but only a handful are common in cultivation. It’s those species that will be briefly covered in this article.

Furcraea foetida (Mauritius hemp) This is probably the most common Furcraea in cultivation partly due to is economic important as a source of hemp fiber (grown in massive quantities on the island of Mauritius, though this is originally a South American species) and partly due the plant being a fairly user-friendly as well as beautiful and manageable in the landscape. The variegated forms (primarily one called ‘Mediopicta’, but there are striped and marginate forms as well) of this species are far more common than the plain green forms, thanks to their excellent ornamental appeal. As mentioned this is a ‘safe’ species with no sharp edges to speak of. It is a stemless to short-stemmed species forming a many-leaved clump about 4 feet by 4 feet. It has moderate cold hardiness into the mid- to high- 20s F. Claims of Furcraea foetida surviving temps below 20 F exist… I just doubt them. This species is happy in a large variety of climates, from hot arid to moist tropical. Furcraea gigantea is a synonym.

Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopictas’

Furcraea foetidas (first photo by Monocromatico)

Furcraea selloa (wild sisal) is probably the next most commonly grown species in cultivation and is a much larger and less friendly plant, best used in wide open spaces or far from walkways. This plant has long stiff leaves (up to 5 feet) that tend to widen near the tip before narrowing to a sharp, stiff point (creating a sort of spoon shape with a needle at the end). The leaf margins are heavily armed with very sharp teeth. As is the case with Furcraea foetida, the variegated (marginate) form is by far the most commonly seen thanks to its superior ornamental value. This plant forms a stem eventually (though some individuals flower before this happens) and some plants can develop trunks up to 10 feet tall. The flowers of this species are exceptionally tall and fairly sparsely branched.

Furcraea selloa with tall trunks Furcraea selloa ‘Marginata’ Furcraea selloa ‘Marginata’ with about 10 feet of trunk

leaf detail showing marginal teeth (photo by cactus_lover)

Furcraea macdougallii is not nearly as common as the two previously mentioned species, but it is my favorite of the available Furcraeas in cultivation. This is huge plant forming a large trunk fairly reliably and these trunks can grow over 20 feet tall (I have not seen any taller.) The leaves are narrow, deep blue-green and have soft marginal teeth. The texture of the leaves is rough like shark skin. Young plants tend to have an upright habit with only the very oldest leaves protruding laterally. But as plants age, the effect matures to form a silhouette of a pine tree or possibly a Phoenix palm. Large older specimens are imposing plants indeed. This is a moderately user-friendly species with few dangerous sharp edges. This plant is cold hardy down to the mid-20s and prefers full sun in very warm arid conditions.

Furcaea macdougalliis, young potted, maturing but still no trunk, and older, trunking plant

clump of plants in Los Angeles (not suckering, but planted nearly on top of each other); second photo shows close up of leaf bases; third shows plant that has flowered and all leaves gone now

The only other species I have come across in cultivation (though there may be more, of course) is Furcraea roezlii. This is another blue-green-leaved species but these leaves are flatter and much wider like the two first Furcraeas discussed. Furcraea bedinghausii may be the same species but tends to be a larger, longer-leaved version. These plants are stem-formers and older plants tend to keep petticoats of old dead leaves nearly the entire length of the trunks.

Furcraea roezliis

Furcraea bedinghausiis (behind Agaves in first photo, and beside a Yucca in second)

The Difference Between Agave and Yucca

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To the untrained eye, there are many similarities between Agave and Yucca. Both are drought-loving desert plants that grow their leaves in a rosette pattern. They are often similar in color and their leaves protrude from a center stem. Both plants prefer warm, dry climates and are native to Mexico and the southwestern United States. Agave and Yucca even belong to the same subfamily, Agavoideae.

Agave and Yucca are also similar in their uses. Outside of decorative purposes, they share the quality of stiff, fibrous leaves. The fibers of the leaves are often extracted to be used to make rope, rugs, nets, and other home goods. The durability of the fibers and sustainability of their sources make them popular material choices for eco-friendly households.

With just a casual glance, it can be easy to confuse the two plants, but a closer inspection will reveal subtle differences. Keeping these differences in mind, you’ll soon be able to expertly identify whether a plant is an Agave or a Yucca.

Table of Contents

The Leaves of Agave and Yucca

The Agave has sharp spines along the leaf margins, distinguishing it from the leaves of the Yucca.

Both Yucca and Agave grow their long, pointed leaves in a rosette pattern, similar to many other types of succulents. This can cause some confusion, especially considering the plants also share similarities in the locations and conditions in which they grow.

One of the most noticeable differences between Agave and Yucca is the shape of the leaves. Although Agave tend to have less fleshy leaves than other succulents, the leaves the Yucca are even less plump. Yucca leaves also tend to be quite long and narrow, compared to Agave leaves. Yucca leaves are often compared in shape to swords.

Agave leaves also stand out from Yucca leaves because of the spikes that run along the edge of the leaves. These spikes, also known as margin teeth, line the edges of the leaves and end in a pointed terminal spine at the tip of the leaf. Yucca leaves can also have spines and marginal teeth, but they are always much smaller relative to an Agave.

The color of the leaves in both Agave and Yucca will vary according the variety. Agave can range in color from the ghostly blue-green of Agave tequilana to the vibrant yellow and green Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’. Yucca also come in a variety of colors, including the deep green Yucca gloriosa and the canary yellow Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’.

Flowering Habits of Agave and Yucca

Yucca produce beautiful clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers every year.

One of the key differences between Yucca and Agave is the frequency in which they bloom. Yucca are known to bloom reliably once per year, usually between mid-summer and early fall. Different varieties will vary slightly in the exact timing of their bloom.

When Yucca plants bloom, they produce a long stalk from their center, which can reach about six feet in length. The top of the stalk is covered in waxy, white flowers hanging downward in clusters. The flowers tend to be more rounded than those of the Agave, almost resembling the shape of a bell. After blooming, the stalk will dry up and turn brown. Most gardeners choose to remove the unsightly stalk after it’s finished blooming.

Agave, on the other hand, bloom only once in their lifetime. Depending on the species and the conditions the plant is growing in, Agave will bloom somewhere between 10 and 30 years of age. After an Agave blooms, it dies shortly after. The Agave’s blooming habits have given it the nickname ‘Century Plant’ because of how infrequently it produces flowers.

Agave also produce a stalk from the center of the rosette, but the Agave’s stalk can reach up to 30 feet in height. At the top of the stalk are clusters of the plant’s yellow or red flowers. The blooms are usually small and tubular in shape.

Size and Shape of Agave and Yucca

Agave tend to grow in diameter as well as in height, staying roughly the same shape as they grow.

The size of an Agave plant not only sets it apart from Aloe, but from Yucca as well. Of course, there is some size variance between the various species, but Agave plants can grow to be quite large. Some Yucca can also grow to a considerable size, but they tend to grow in a different manner than Agave.

As Agave plants grow, they increase in size both in height as well as in diameter. A small Agave will be similar in shape to a larger Agave, the only difference being in the overall size of the plant. Agave are stemless plants that grow closely to the ground at their base. The largest Agave varieties can reach up to about eight feet in height and nine feet in diameter.

Yucca, on the other hand, tends to grow more in height than in diameter. As the plant increases in height, it will continue to produce leaves of approximately the same length. Over time, a Yucca will produce a stem similar to the trunk of a small tree. In fact, the Joshua Tree is a species of Yucca plant. Although it’s not actually a tree, the Joshua Tree is the largest Yucca, reaching up to 40 feet in height.

Caring for Agave and Yucca

This Joshua Tree, as well as other species of Yucca, enjoy the same dry desert conditions as Agave.

Fortunately, regardless of whether you can correctly distinguish an Agave from a Yucca, you can adequately care for both provided that you give them well-draining soil, plenty of sunshine, and infrequent watering.

Both plants thrive in dry, arid climates, so if you live in their natural habitat, you may be able to grow them outdoors. However, if you live in a wet or cold climate, you may need to bring them indoors from time to time. Neither plant does particularly well with cold or moisture, so they must be protected from freezing temperatures and standing water.

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