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Agave: It’s no cactus, but it just as easy to grow, more beautiful


When the flower stalk began to grow on your plant, you were perhaps a trifle surprised to see how quickly it grew.

Now it’s 10 feet tall and you find out that the plant you thought was some kind of cactus is an agave. If that weren’t enough, your neighbor tells you that it will die after flowering. Yikes! What kind of crazy plant did they plant in your yard? I know, agaves seem to be really weird plants. But when you get to know them, they’re not all bad.

Probably the best known agave is what is sometimes called the century plant and while it does take a long time to get around to flowering, it really isn’t a century. This moniker is usually applied to Agave Americana and its relatives of various stripes and colors. This is one of the larger agaves and the plants can reach 6 feet or more across and just as tall- and that doesn’t include the flower stalk. The flower stalk can develop several inches a day and reach 10 or more feet tall. It has beautiful flowers, and after flowering the dried stalks make gorgeous decorations.

It is not all bad that the flower stalk is the culmination of the plant’s life. There are many other plants that go about their work of growing, flowering, producing seed and dying – just not quite so dramatically!

There is a very silver lining to the cloud of thought that you will be losing a plant. Plants don’t like to leave the planet without ensuring that they have left a very good supply of progeny. Most agaves do this by producing dozens, perhaps hundreds of offshoots or little plantlets that grow around their base. Then after flowering, as the parent plant slowly dies, it imparts nutrition to the growing “children.” Usually, by the time the adult is ready for the compost pile, the children are thriving. In nature the new plants encompass the dying old plant and grow over it making large clumps. In your landscape, you have a choice: You can cut out the old plant or let nature takes its course. Also, you can leave the new plants in a clump or dig and separate them to plant all over your yard.

There are so many awesome agaves and so little space to talk about them all. Some of the standouts are:

Agave chrysantha has bright golden flowers which will make you eager to see bloom. It is midsized – 3 to 4 feet across and 5 feet high, not including the flower stalk.

Agave geminiflora is a bright green, slender-leaved beauty that is well-behaved enough to live in a pot or a smaller planting area. This one will even thrive in shady areas.

Agave parryi and all its variations are Tucson favorites. Sometimes called artichoke agave, thanks to the tight rosette of chiseled blue-green leaves, they live up to the name. This variety makes prolific offshoots and is a mature group measuring 5 or 6 feet across. It is a gorgeous sight.

Agave potatorum is a dwarf that readily makes large clumps. It has wickedly scalloped edges adorned with a sharp spine, but its tight formation keeps pedestrians out of harms way.

Agave victoriae-reginae is certainly one of the most beautiful small agaves and highly sought after for its small stature.

Agave vilmorianiana or octopus agave may be the most unusual, making thousands of new baby plants in every place on the flower stalk that there was a flower. Talk about a mother of thousands!

This is just a sampling from this large, wonderful group of plants that love the desert and will give you very easy care with minimal water.

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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