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Yucca, agave desert plants with different growth cycles


This time of year we are flooded with calls from people who heard from a friend or neighbor that a plant they have is going to die because it put out a flower stalk.

“Is it true?” they ask.

To answer, the first thing to do is distinguish whether the plant is a yucca or agave. Both plant families may be starting to bloom at this time, but they have VERY different types of growth cycles.

To tell which you have, first observe the leaves. Are they thick and fleshy? Are they arranged around a central rolled section of leaves? Is the plant basically stemless? You most likely have an agave.

If the leaves are narrow and fibrous arranged all the way around a rounded head – on most species on a trunk sheathed in old leaves – you most likely have a yucca.

Yuccas come in many shapes, sizes and varieties and most will become a many-armed tree – a famous desert silhouette. Yuccas bloom each and every year once they have reached maturity. Most have an abundance of creamy white flowers and they adorn a stalk that can be 1 to 5 feet long with the show lasting for several months.

Here are some of the more common yuccas:

• Soap-tree yucca (Yucca elata) is a Sonoran Desert native and one of the most handsome as well as one that grows reasonably fast and becomes a good sized “tree.”

• Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is notoriously slow-growing and can take a human lifetime to reach a good size.

• Blue yucca (Yucca rigida) is an extremely handsome mid-size yucca that grows moderately fast and blooms beautifully from a young age. The pure white flowers make a huge cloud of flowers against its icy blue foliage.

• Yucca pendula, or Yucca recurvifolia, is a handsome dark-leaved plant that usually grows as a singular plant and its leaves gracefully hang downward. This makes it good to use around pools or other traffic areas.

• Silver Star yucca (Yucca elephantipes) is the one for you if you have a patio or other semishady situation. This glamorous yucca is boldly striped green and white and its fast growth soon makes a specimen plant.

These are only a few of the exciting varieties available to add to your home landscape.

One note: When buying a yucca beware of those that have been dug from construction sites! They may be a huge size for a remarkably low price, but as many as 50 percent of them never re-root and eventually die when they have used up all their stored water. The best way to know that a field-collected yucca will live and grow, is to make sure that it has been in a container a minimum of one year to ensure that roots are forthcoming.

As for agaves, they come in numerous shapes, sizes and colors. The one thing they all have in common is that their life cycles culminate in a large bloom stalk that uses a huge amount of energy and is the final glory of the plant’s life. Next week we will explore some of the hundreds or gorgeous Agaves suitable for southern Arizona.

Cathy Bishop, co-owner of Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery, has more than 30 years of gardening experience. E-mail her at weekendplus@tucsoncitizen.com.

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