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.
Agave Plant Quick Growing Guide:
Family: Asparagaceae (formerly Agavaceae) family.
Origin: South, Central, North America and the Caribbean.
Common Names: Century Plant
Agave Plant Uses: Landscape plants make large, impressive individual specimens, low-growing border plants, small varieties make excellent potted and container plants both indoors and in sheltered outdoor settings.
Height: The Agave plant range in size from a few inches to twenty feet high and 20′ feet wide.
USDA Hardiness Zones: The majority of agave plants cannot withstand freezing temperatures and do better in zones 8-9 or higher. Some varieties (i.e., Agave parryi) can do well year-round to USDA zone 5.
Flowers: Plants produce bell-shaped flowers once-in-a-lifetime and last a long time. Flowers are typically green, white or yellow, and several varieties produce red flowers. After flowering the plant dies back.
Foliage: Most agaves are stemless and produce succulent, strappy, pointed leaves in a rosette configuration. Warm climate varieties tend to be grayish-green. Cooler climate varieties tend to be blue-green. Several variegated varieties exhibit striations or stripes of white or gold.
Agave Care Requirements: Love the full sun, some do well in partial shade. In locations with a scorching, punishing climate more shade is tolerated (or even appreciated).
Soil: These plants like sandy, rocky, well-drained soil. They have no preference as to pH levels.
Water: Established plants need watering once every couple of weeks if at all. Deeply water, container grown Agave plants when the top inch or two of the soil dries completely.
Feeding: Agave plants don’t need fertilizing at all. Remember feeding produces flowers and flowering mean death to the agave. Don’t fertilize if you want your plant to live for a long time.
Miscellaneous: Tequila is made using the Blue Agave cactus. The traditional “worm” in tequila is from the caterpillar of the maguey moth, which lives on agave plants. In 1940, a tequila distiller by the name of Jacobo Lozano Paez discovered that the caterpillars enhanced the flavor of tequila, so he began adding one to every bottle. Hence the tradition was born. [source]
What Do Agave Plant Flowers Look Like?
You can recognize agave succulents by their rosette shape. The leathery agave 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.
Related Reading: The Dasylirion acrotrichum (Desert spoon plant) resembles Agave 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 plant, 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 of agave 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 agave 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 small agave plant 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.
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.
Agave also grow easily from seed. For details read our article on – How To Grow Agave From Seed.
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 sunroom. 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 agaves 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.
Related Reading: The False Agave – Furcraea foetida
- When planting keep the crown above soil line
- Plant using a well-draining succulent soil OR 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