The Agave Plant is a group of over 200 species, all hailing from the desert (or near-desert) regions of South, Central, North America and the Caribbean.
These large, tough, cactus-like plants are amazingly useful and economically valuable to the people in these areas. They are used to produce a wide variety of products ranging from:
In addition to being a valuable crop, these stunning plants make great houseplants, along with excellent additions to Southwest inspired landscapes, desert landscaping, and xeriscaping.
In this article, we will share information on some of the most popular agave species and discuss how to grow, care for and use these fascinating plants. Read on to learn more.
What Do Agave Plants Look Like?
You can recognize agave succulents by their rosette shape. The leathery leaves grow in a distinctive spiraling pattern. The leaves may be just a few inches long or as long as eight feet. Color and patterns are also varied with solid, striped and variegated plants in shades of light green and grayish-blue with markings in white, cream and yellow.
Most Agaves spread vigorously by producing pups (clonal rosettes) around the base of the plant or close by. If the pups do not grow directly on the plant, they spread through vigorously traveling rhizomes. Some types create bulb-like structures (bulbils) on the flowers. These bulbils can grow into new plants.
How Often Do Agave Bloom?
Most Agave plants only flower and fruit once in their lifetime, and the longest-lived species may have a lifespan of 10-30 years. [source] Some have been known to live much longer.
After the plant produces flowers and fruit, it dies: hence these plants are termed monocarpic. The death of the parent plant shouldn’t be of tremendous concern to gardeners, though. These long-lived plants produce lots of offspring in their lifetime, so a good replacement plant will surely be close at hand.
When an agave does bloom, it is quite a dramatic sight. The flowers may be red, yellow or pale green. They are held aloft by tall, sturdy stems that may attain heights of 30 feet. Some types of agave send out a single shoot, others send out branching stems.
The six-petaled flowers are a hit with birds, bees, and butterflies as they produce vast amounts of very sweet nectar. Other pollinators enjoying this nectar include hawk moths and bats. [source]
How Are Agave Plants Used?
In Mexico, there are many different varieties of the agave plant, and they are used to produce all manner of goods. The strong, fibrous tissues sourced from the leaves of some varieties are used to make:
- Sleeping mats
- and more!
There are some types that produce a natural “needle & thread” combination because the strong, sharp point of the leaf can be removed with a tough length of fiber still attached. [source]
In addition to fabrication uses, some kinds of Agave provide an important food source for many people. It can be harvested at any time, but just before the plant flowers, the stem is rich in carbohydrates. The flowers, leaves and stalk are also edible. [source]
When the leaves are removed, a thick stem remains. This may be chopped up and used as a raw or cooked vegetable or ground up and shaped into patties, which can be dried and saved for later. Sweet agave nectar and mescal alcohols are also sourced from the stem.
In this video, agave is harvested to make nectar. Notice that the harvesters slice the thorns off the leaves quickly and efficiently before harvesting. This might be an excellent technique to use on fronds you intend to prune off your plants!
Agave Harvest in Central Mexico
Agave hearts are used to make mescal. The process involves roasting or pressure cooking the hearts to extract the sap, which is then fermented and distilled. There are several types of agave used for this purpose. Many people are familiar with the blue agave, which is used exclusively for tequila production. There is another Mexican alcohol known as pulque, but differs from tequila in that it is made using the sap from the flower stalk, not the heart.
Harvesting Blue Agave Plant in Mexico To Make Tequila
Agave nectar finds use as a natural sugar substitute, but it is not much more natural than cane sugar. This product is not a true nectar (extracted from flowers) instead, it is more like maple syrup and made of the sap of the agave heart. Once extracted the sap is filtered and heated to create a syrup. This syrup has a low glycemic index but contains large amounts of fructose, which is detrimental. [source] The plants most often used for this purpose are the century plant and the blue agave.
If you plan to use agave for consumption, be advised that the raw sap is usually poisonous. [source] You must process the sap thoroughly before consuming it. Be sure to consult a good cookbook and follow instructions exactly.
Agave Overview and Description
Many people are surprised to hear the agave referred to as rosette-shaped, and it can be hard to see this shape in some of the giant varieties. These large, spiny succulent plants just seem to have gigantic, sharp leaves that poke out in every direction, but the truth is that at their base they grow in a classic rosette shape, just like rose petals.
The variety in agave plants is impressive – from small, non-threatening varieties that make excellent and favorite houseplants to aggressive, 20-foot giants rattling a collection of natural sabers.
The smaller varieties make excellent houseplants and beautiful additions to your patio or deck setting. Although they have sharp, pointy leaves, they are not (for the most part) stiff enough to inflict harm. Leaves may be plump or skinny and come in a variety of colors in shades of green, grayish-green and blue-gray. Some variegated types have red, yellow or cream-colored edges.
These pretty plants make attractive individual specimens in the sunniest area of your yard or garden. Collect and group compact varieties to form an impressive succulent garden.
Agave Plant Care Indoors
If you start out by making a good choice, an agave makes an excellent houseplant when you can offer a warm setting with lots of good sunlight. Most Agaves are relatively slow-growing, so even a larger variety can do well indoors for quite a while.
Just remember Agaves are somewhat prickly, and this is especially true of the larger varieties. Even the smaller types can cause problems with lots of contact because the sap in the leaves can be a skin irritant.
If you have an area with plenty of space, so people do not regularly brush up against the plant, an agave is an excellent choice as a house plant. These plants have very shallow root systems allowing you to grow and display them in smaller containers without a lot of soil.
Keep in mind the soil must be well-draining. For best results, choose a good quality cactus potting mix or make your own using two parts light potting mix and one part coarse gravel.
Indoor Agave Culture
Light: Indoors, your plant will want bright light for at least six hours every day. Keep it in a west facing window and supplement with artificial light as needed. In the summertime, let your plants enjoy the warm weather and sunshine. Remember to transition them carefully so as not to cause stress.
Water: During the autumn and winter months, water sparingly about once a month. During warmer months, water thoroughly when the planting medium becomes almost completely dry. A weekly watering schedule is usually about right.
Temperature: These plants like very warm temperatures (70-90ºF) during the growing season. During the winter months, your indoor agave will be comfortable if you are comfortable. Be sure to maintain a temperature of at least 50-60ºF to prevent having your plant go dormant.
Fertilizer: Because a potted plant is a captive, it cannot seek out nourishment in the soil surrounding it. For this reason, you may want to provide a very dilute monthly feeding with a specially formulated succulent fertilizer during the growing season.
Repotting and Transplanting Agave Plants Pain-Free
Because agave plants are slow growers, outgrowing the pot may not happen every year. Many skilled agave growers maintain that these plants do not like lots of handling, so it’s better to leave them alone until repotting is necessary.
If you notice your plant becoming root-bound go ahead and repot it. Repot using a pot just slightly larger than the one it already grows in. If you give an agave a big pot, it is very likely to use the extra space to grow pups, so keep it contained (unless you want pups!)
When repotting time does come, water the plant before removing it from its old pot. Be sure to replace the old potting medium with new soil completely. Use a high quality, fast draining succulent or cactus mix. Tamp it down thoroughly around the plant’s roots to prevent toppling. Be sure you don’t sink the plant too deeply into the soil. The stem should be exposed to air to avoid rot.
Once the repotting is complete, water again but don’t fertilize. This will encourage the roots to develop so that the plant will become better established quickly. Your plant should get plenty of nourishment from fresh soil for some time to come.
Remember that any time you handle agave, you should protect yourself against cuts and exposure to sap. Be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when you repot or transplant an agave. Wash up after to remove any stray sap that may have come in contact with your skin.
Create Unique Looks With Agave Plants, Pots and Containers
The Hardy Agave Has Few Pests and Problems
There are very few pests that prey upon these plants. The exception is the agave snout weevil, which burrows into the center of the plant to lay eggs. This causes the plant to collapse completely, and unfortunately, you will not know about it until the damage is done. If this happens, remove the plant completely and kill all the grubs to prevent infestation of any other agave plants in your collection. [source]
Larger plants (e.g., the Century Plant) are more susceptible to damage by snout weevils than are smaller plants. To avoid infestation be sure to quarantine new plants. Repot them into a fresh potting medium and take great care to remove the old potting medium and dispose of it completely.
In this video, award-winning garden photojournalist Deborah Lee Baldwin explains how to avoid and deal with snout weevil infestation.
Prevention and Treatment of the Agave Snout Weevil
In some areas, gophers may eat agave roots. Lining the planting hole with chicken wire before planting can keep gophers out. [source] After the fact, hire a pest control service or carefully deal with gophers using sonic repellent devices, traps or poison. Be careful not to harm beneficial wildlife.
Other problems (e.g., root and stem rot) may be caused by low temperatures, low lighting, and excessive watering. Whether indoors or outdoors, be sure to provide your agave with plenty of sunlight, good air circulation, and a fast-draining growth medium.
Pruning Giant Agave Plants in Garden and Yard
The main aspect of pruning agave plants consists of removing dead leaves and eradicating any areas that may be diseased. There is also some seasonal pruning involved.
Just before and just after the growth season, you’ll want to give your agave plant a trim. At the end of winter, trim off dead and damaged spears to make room for new growth.
If you plan to keep your agave indoors as a houseplant during the winter, you will naturally need to cut it down to size for safety and convenience. In this case, in addition to pruning off dead or diseased material, you should also cut back any spears that jut out and might be dangerous. Cut them back all the way to the stem.
This also applies when you need to do clean-up pruning outdoors. If your agave has a sudden burst of growth, you may need to cut it back. It’s always best to cut all the way back to the base. Don’t cut portions off the spears as it looks ugly and leaves an exposed scar.
When you trim your agave, don’t overdo it. Excessive trimming stresses the plant and hampers its ability to store water (its primary function in life). Just trim back spears that are already compromised, or that may present a threat to passersby.
Be Sure Your Tools Are Sharp and Strong
Before you begin pruning make certain your shears and knife or machete are very sharp and very sturdy. These plants have strong, fibrous leaves and you don’t want to have to struggle with them. Be sure to wear:
- Proper eye protection
- Sturdy gloves
- Long sleeves and pants
…. to protect yourself against injury and exposure to the sap.
This video presents good instructions on pruning a giant Agave americana (Century plant) and gathering its pups.
Many Types of Agave Plants
When seeking out just the right agave for your setting, you will have a lot of excellent choices. Of the more than 200 species of agave, several dozen are cultivated for agricultural, industrial, landscaping and home use. Some are small, potted-plant sized specimens and some are giants that will tower over your home when blooming time comes.
6 Of The Most Popular Species:
#1 – Agave americana is commonly referred to as the American Century Plant. This plant has very attractive bluish leaves featuring prominent, saw-toothed spines. The common variety is a solid bluish color. There is also a variegated variety known as Agave Americana Marginata. Both grow quite large and make good specimen plants in an open setting. [source]
#2 – Agave victoriae-reginae or Queen Victoria Agave is a smaller plant with upright, black tipped leaves that curve inward to form a compact dome. This is a good choice as a container or potted plant or as a border plant as it only grows to be about a foot to 18 inches tall. The plant lives to be twenty or thirty years old and produces pretty, cream-colored or reddish-purple flowers on a fifteen-foot stalk as its swan song. [source]
#3 – Agave filifera is also known as the Thread Agave. The plant is very attractive with dark green leaves that may have a slightly bronze cast. The leaves are edged is white and feature festive thread-like filaments. This medium-sized plant grows to be about three feet wide and two feet high. [source]
#4 – Agave attenuata is also called Dragon Tree or Foxtail.
The Agave attenuata plant grows to be four or five feet high and wide with a curved inflorescence holding greenish-yellow flowers on the spike which earned attenuata the common name, Fox Tail agave.
It is a spineless variety with soft, attractive, pliable, threat-free green leaves. When it is young and small, it makes an attractive easy-care houseplant.
As a container plant or in the landscape Attenuata does not present the dangers of its more aggressive cousins.
This is a good choice as a poolside plant or in a small yard where avoiding the plant might be difficult. [source]
#5 – Agave parvivlora is also known as the Small Flower Agave, Small Flower Century Plant or the Santa Cruze striped agave. This small, delightful plant only reaches a height of about eight inches. Agave parvivlora is similar to Agave filifera in that it also produces pretty “hair” filaments in curls around its compact, attractive leaves. This plant’s flower stalk stands 3-7 feet high and produces pretty yellow or cream-colored flowers that are very attractive to bees and other pollinators. [source]
#6 – Agave tequilana azul is also known as Weber’s Blue Agave, Tequila Agave or simply, Blue Agave. This is the plant that is used in making tequila. It is also a good landscaping plant for gardeners in high altitudes. These plants prefer rich, well-drained, sandy soil. The plants grow quite large and can live several decades, so if you take one on be prepared for a commitment! [source]
These are just a few of the best types of agave plant for home and garden. Check out this collection of 15 interesting Agave options for use as potted plants or in sunny areas around your home:
Blue Agave Plant Care
The tequila cactus needs high altitude and lots of sun to flourish. It is only hardy in USDA zones 9b and 10. It will not do well in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The Blue Agave is a stunning plant that can reach a height and width of eight feet. When it is mature, this monocarpic plant sends out a fifteen foot high, edible flower stalk and produces large numbers of pups at its base.
How to Keep Blue Agave Indoors
To keep blue agave (or any agave) indoors in the winter, you should locate a sunny window that provides at least six hours of direct light exposure daily. If you do not have a window with that much sun exposure, choose your best window and add artificial light to supplement.
Blue agave and other large species can do very well as potted plants and container plants while they are small. Root crowding is not a problem for agave. As long as you provide a good, free-draining planting medium, your agave will be happy. Use either a prepared cactus or succulent mix or make your own.
Remember that you will not need to water much during the cold months. Even if your plant is warm and cozy indoors, you don’t need to encourage growth, so just water sparingly whenever the top half of the potting medium is dry.
Some sources recommend providing a diluted fertilizer treatment every couple of months during the winter, but this is not necessary. With good potting medium, your plant should not need extra supplementation. Again, your goal in the winter is not to encourage growth, and you certainly don’t want to encourage flowering.
Grow Blue Agave From a Pup Step-by-Step
The easiest way to grow any agave is from a pup. Here are instructions to help you get your plant started and care for it on an ongoing basis.
#1 – Choose the right location. Begin by placing your blue agave pup into well-draining, sandy soil in a location that receives a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight every day. These plants prefer a rich, sandy soil; however, almost any quality well-draining soil is acceptable.
Be sure to select a landscape location that is high enough to allow excellent drainage as these plants cannot tolerate wet feet. You must also take care to protect the plant from chill. Sheltering trees or bushes that provide a wind block but do not block the sun can be helpful.
Leave plenty of space for the plant to grow to its full and imposing height and breadth. Remember that its spears are rigid and sharp and equipped with thorny spines, so place your blue agave well away from footpaths and play areas.
Also, keep in mind the fact that you will need to remove the remains of the plant after it blooms (some thirty years down the line) so don’t put it in an area that will be difficult to access and work in when that time comes.
#2 – Water carefully! Once you have located a good spot and planted your blue agave, be sure to keep it watered until it is well-established. Water deeply, once a week for about four weeks. If you get substantial rain, don’t water.
Once the plant is established, water one or two times a month during the growing season, always taking natural rainfall into account.
Don’t water in the wintertime. You should water the plant thoroughly and evenly, but do not over water and leave the plant standing in water. Wait until the soil is completely dry before watering again.
Don’t worry that your plant will be thirsty. It is far better to under-water than over-water. All succulents store extra water in their leaves, and your plant will have what it needs.
#3 – Fertilize very sparingly or not at all. You can give your blue agave a half dose of diluted liquid fertilizer specially formulated for succulents and cactus if you wish. This really is not necessary, though.
Once established, your plant should be able to glean all the nourishment it needs from the soil. Mulching around the plant with chopped leaves in the cooler months should help replenish nutrients in the soil and provide more nourishment for your agave if it needs it.
Remember that excessive fertilizer will spur your plant to flower, and that will be the end of your plant!
#4 – Protect against cold. Blue Agave can withstand an occasional freeze if you take extra precautions. Be sure to cover your plant with blankets before it freezes. Your cover should extend all the way to the ground to hold in the heat of the earth.
If you can surround your plant with bales of straw or bags of leaves to help hold the blankets in place, it is helpful. If you are expecting temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period, you should dig your plant up and bring it indoors if it is small enough to do so.
How to Grow Blue Agave From Seed
If you aren’t able to find an agave pup, you can grow blue agave and other types from seed. The process isn’t difficult, but it can be time-consuming. Here’s how:
- Shallow planting containers and drip trays
- Sterilized seed starting mix
- Plastic wrap or plastic bags
#1 – If your planting containers are not brand new, wash them thoroughly and allow them to dry in the sun for a day or two before you begin. Remember that your containers must be well-draining, so add holes to the bottom as needed before planting.
#2 – Prepare your seed starting medium using a 50-50 mix of sharp sand, pumice or perlite, and vermiculite, sphagnum moss or coco coir. To sterilize your mix, bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour. If you prefer, you can use a commercially prepared, sterilized seed starting mix.
#3- Fill your planting containers with your sterilized mix.
#4 – Scatter the seeds over the surface of the mix and either leave them exposed entirely or just sprinkle a little-sterilized sand over them to anchor them in place. Don’t cover the seed deeply because most agave seeds need sunlight to germinate.
#5 – Fill your drip trays with warm, distilled or sterilized water and set the planting containers in the water. When the top of the soil is moist, remove the containers from the drip trays and allow them to drain.
TIP: To sterilize tap water for your seeds, first allow it to sit out for 24 hours so that chemicals will dissipate. Next, bring the water to a full rolling boil and boil it for 5 minutes. Allow it to cool thoroughly and then pour it from the boiling pot into a clean container from a height of about three feet to help aerate the water .
#6 – Once the excess moisture has been drained from your planting containers, cover them with plastic wrap or seal each one inside a clear plastic bag. This will help keep moisture levels consistent during germination.
#7 – Keep your aspiring agave seeds in a consistently warm (65-70 degrees Fahrenheit) place with plenty of bright, indirect sunlight. Germination can take a while, and if you have planted several different varieties, it may happen sporadically. You should begin seeing some young sprouts within 14-21 days. When the seedlings appear, it’s time to remove the plastic.
#8 – Water very sparingly, a couple of times a week. You want to keep the soil very lightly moist, not soggy. You may wish to use a spray bottle for watering as this helps prevent displacement of seeds and seedlings.
#9 – When your seedlings have 2-3 leaves, carefully transfer them to their own pots.
Do All Agaves Die After Blooming?
Yes, they do and when your plant does flower don’t try to stave off the inevitable by cutting off the flower stalk. Your plant’s flowering time (and time of demise) is determined by genetics. You can speed it up with a rich diet of fertilizer, or you can make sure your plant takes a long time to gather energy and resources by providing a Spartan regimen, but you cannot stop the process once it has started. When your plant produces flowers, it’s time to say your goodbyes.
According to Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Center it is very unlikely that you will be able to save the parent plant by cutting off the bud stalk. The process of blooming takes a long time, and the reason these plants are so commonly called “century plants” is that it takes what seems like a century for them to muster the energy and resources to bloom. [source]
Remember that agave are native to very harsh, dry, forbidding settings where there is very little water and nourishment to be had. Still, the plants are driven by genetics to blossom, produce seed and reproduce. This process takes a great deal of time and energy, and by the time the stalk emerges much of that energy has already been spent. If you try to stop the process by cutting off the flower stalk, you lose the spectacular sight of the blossoms, and you’ll probably lose the parent plant as well.
Luckily, the parent plant is almost always amply replaced by the “pups” that surround it. When you see the flower spike beginning to emerge, you can go ahead and separate the pups and re-pot, transplant or relocate them. Alternately, you can just leave them in place and allow them to take the place of the parent plant.
How to Propagate Agave Pups
It’s easy to have agave in great numbers to create stunning displays for your patio, porch or yard. Just separate the pups from the parent with a sharp knife or a trowel. Sometimes, you can just twist them off by hand with very little exertion.
When you remove the pups from the parent, it’s best if the roots are the same length as the plant (or longer) but this isn’t necessary. Even if you come away with a pup with no roots, go ahead and plant it. It may send out roots and grow just fine.
Growing all sorts of agave from pups is dead simple. Whether your plant generates pups on the stem or sends them out a few inches away on rhizomes, you can easily gather them and simply repot them in properly prepared, well-draining potting medium and care for them as if they were grown plants. Keep the young plants watered at first, but be careful not to overdo it. You don’t want to promote root rot.
These two videos provide good information on gathering and planting agave pups. Each one shows slightly different information, but when taken together they form a complete tutorial.
Enjoy Agave in Any Climate!
When you take the time to choose the right agave for your setting, you can expect many years of enjoyment from one (or more) of these dramatic and beautiful ornamental plants.
These desert dwellers require very little in the way of maintenance and add an exotic touch to your yard, garden, patio, poolside or sun room. If you live in a very cold climate, you can enjoy agave in your greenhouse all year round. Just be prepared to cut a hole in the roof when the blooming time finally arrives if you have chosen one of the very large varieties.
Although agave shares a number of characteristics with cactus, they are not members of this family. Still, the cactus-like agave makes a wonderful addition to a desert garden, a rock garden or a xeriscaped yard.
These plants are slow growing and can be rather pricey, but if you purchase seed, you can save a bit of money and enjoy the adventure of growing succulents from seed. Alternately, you might wish to seek out a local horticultural society and befriend a fellow, succulent enthusiast.
This video looks at growing Agaves in North Carolina and the best ones for your garden.
Remember that most agave send out copious numbers of pups on a fairly regular basis, so people who are in possession of a mature plant will surely have good advice and lovely little plants to share with you.
Most local plant societies also have an annual plant sale. This can be a great way to attain all manner of plants, but especially succulents which are so easy to propagate through pups.
Agave plants are very easy to grow, and once established they need very little in the way of care or even water. They are an ideal choice for areas where water is in short supply. They are also the perfect choice for the forgetful indoor gardener; although, not so much the chronic over-waterer.
For the most part, no matter what your gardening situation and habits may be, with over 200 attractive varieties in a wide range of sizes, colors and growth habits, there is sure to be an agave that is just right for you! Agaves make wonderful potted editions for the garden especially when “dressed” in stylish decorative containers. They look great used as stand-alone specimens in sunny locations. Remember, Agaves are not very “kid friendly” with their spiny points. Variegated, red edges, gray green, green, plump and skinny leaves give them a simple beauty hard to describe.
Agave plants also make wonderful potted specimens for the patio. Separating and diving the “pups” from the mother plant is easy… a little wiggling along with some roots and you are good to go.
- When planting keep crown above soil line
- Soil should dry slowly but drain well. Mix – equals parts sharp sand, compost and a good potting mix
- During growing season begin with a dry balanced fertilizer, as the season progresses feed with complete liquid fertilizer once a month
- Provide plenty of light, most varieties agaves will handle full when potted