Hot Stuff: The Secret Confessions of an Agave Addict

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

As I sit down to write this month’s column, I find myself feeling a little smug about my plant fetish du jour. I have gone through many plant fetish phases in my life. I move from one obsession to the next, dropping yesterday’s fixation like a sack of wet manure compost. It is hard not to “wander” when you’re a gardener, some new species or group of plants is always wrapping its alluring tendrils around our imaginations. But, as I sit here on this freakishly hot spring day, after three rainless weeks (and counting,) I can’t help but feel just a tad omniscient. You see, my current obsession is for the agaves, those legendary survivors of desert climes.

I am not alone in my obsession, agaves are hot stuff in the world of garden design. All of a sudden, “structure” is in, and agaves have structure in spades. Their bold, sculptural forms add drama to any garden. Agaves stand in striking contrast to the fine textures of the ornamental grasses and the boxy forms of clipped shrubs or hedges. The uninitiated call agaves “century plants” and lump them in with the cacti. But the truth is very different, almost hard to believe, because the agaves are actually woody lilies.

The big news in agave-land right now is the availability of forms unknown to gardeners just a few years ago. Plant collectors have been busy scouring the back country of Mexico and the American Southwest and their “finds” are hitting the market. Forget your mom and dad’s familiar old “century plant.” The colors of the agaves available today vary from silver to blue-green, gray, forest green, yellow-green, and sage. There are even variegated forms that are striped with different colors. Some are dwarfs, growing no more than a foot or two high, others are giants, growing up to eight feet. You might even mistake some varieties for pencil cactus because of the narrow, pointed foliage. That illusion will quickly fade, however, if you try to pluck a quill for writing, for the agaves count themselves among the porcupines of the plant world. Most are well armed with spikes and “teeth,” though not all are vicious.

The most important factor when choosing an agave is whether it is cold hardy, for many are not.  I put my cold hardy ones in the ground and the rest grow in pots. In containers, I use regular potting soil, not a special cactus blend, pots dry out so quickly in our baking heat that drainage is usually not an issue. Besides, much to my surprise, I have learned that most agaves look their best if you provide them with a little moisture during the hottest months.

Since I garden in heavy clay, I am always sure to plant my agaves in a raised bed where I have turned in plenty of decomposed granite for good drainage (just in case it ever rains again.) Another surprise is that full sun is not required; even though most prefer sun, many agaves are very happy in light filtered shade or in positions where they are shaded for part of the day. One of my potted specimens even developed a bit of sun scald last year until I moved it into a more sheltered position.

I have divided the cold-hardy garden varieties that I have planted into two groups for your consideration- the compact plants, and the almost-giants. I have not used any of the monsters like the old century plant (Agave americana.)

The compact forms include: Agave schidigera, which is being sold under the trade name of  'Durango Delight'. This agave grows only 2 feet tall and features dark green foliage with pronounced ‘hairs’ that curl from the leaf blades. As the foliage unfurls, each blade leaves its imprint on the next, a common and very striking feature of the agaves. Agave victoria-reginae, a native of Mexico, this plant is often called the ‘the queen of the agaves.’ It is dependably cold hardy, dark green, and only grows to about 1 foot tall. Many people compare its form to an artichoke. Agave paryii is my personal favorite of the compact forms. It has a pale gray color that contrasts very well with the decomposed granite mulch of my beds as well as the colors of the other plants. It grows to about 2 feet in height.

The bigger boys include: Agave bovicornuta, or ‘cow’s horn agave.’ This is a large plant growing 4-5 feet tall with an even more impressive spread. It has shiny pale green foliage edged with dark teeth. Some folks think this plant is border-line hardy here, though I know of at least one older specimen that survived our recent 16 degree night. Agave murpheyi, or Hohokam agave looks more like the traditional century plant, though the leaves are narrower and more compact, growing about 3-4 feet tall . The foliage is a nice silvery gray. Agave havardiana is a Texas native common in the Big Bend region. This gray leafed plant has a very nice form and grows up to three feet tall. Agave weberi is a gorgeous native of South Texas and Northern Mexico that grows to 5 feet. It has no teeth along its margins, but look out for the spines! Its color is a pale dusty sage that almost looks like ultra-suede, very sexy!

Ooops. There I go again, obsessing about my latest fetish. If you want to get hooked on agaves too, check out Yucca-do nursery on-line at www.yuccado.com. For that local agave fix, stop by Barton Springs Nursery, Big Red Sun, Gardens, or The Natural Gardener.

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