The Agave Addict, the Sequel: Twelve Steps Down the Garden Path
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
Last June, I devoted this column to some rather pointed truths; I bared my soul and tried to come clean about my Agave addiction. (I’m not talking about that fabulous Agave by-product, tequila, though I do count tequila maker Don Julio as a minor deity.) No, I was simply trying to come to grips with my obsession with the whole Agave clan. One year has passed and I have fallen off the wagon. I have gone from having about ten different species of Agave in my garden to more than twenty. If there is a twelve-step program for gardeners, I think I am ready for number one, I am ready to admit that I am powerless—sign me up for Agave Addicts Anonymous.
It has not been an easy year for Agave fans—the late winter cold snap and ice storm tested our loyalty—but let’s face it, any relationship has its rough spots and sharp edges. The only limitation that most Agave lovers face is the hardiness of the various objects of our desire. Hardiness is a gardening term that has a very specific meaning: cold hardiness. Many species of Agave must be protected during a typical Austin winter—relegating them to containers that can be hauled into shelter. However, many others are marginally hardy and the more reckless members of AAA, such as myself, are tempted to plant them in our garden beds.
Most AAA members recall exactly where we were on the evening of February 24, 2003, the night the ice came down. The ice storm, accompanied by an extended period of below-freezing temperatures, laid many Austin area gardens to waste. The storm was particularly damaging because it followed on the heels of exceptionally warm, spring-like weather. Many plants, a few of my Agaves included, were preparing for their springtime growth and had let their guard down. As a result, many marginally hardy species were very badly damaged.
All of the Agaves I recommended last year survived this ordeal, but two: Cow Horn Agave (Agave bovicornuta) and Hohokam Agave (Agave Murpheyi) suffered significant damage. When I consulted my AAA support group, I learned I should have expected my Cow Horn Agave to get nipped, but everyone has expressed shock about the state of my Hohokam Agave. (I think they are just in co-dependent denial.)
I actually did pick up a pretty good tip from another AAA member. Don Eduardo (not his real name) told me that if you plant some of the marginal varieties in exposed northern situations where they receive little winter sun, they actually survive the unexpected late freezes better because they are slower to break their winter dormancy. (This sounds counterintuitive, but worth a try.)
One of the Agaves I praised last year, Agave victoria-reginae, is known as the Queen of the Agaves. It is a delightful little plant with bold green and white foliage. I love mine and was pleased to see that it sailed through the winter with absolutely no sign of cold stress. I was so pleased with her performance that I decide to buy my queen a mate, so one of the latest additions to may Agave army is Agave ferdinand-regis, King of the Agaves. Ferdinand has a particularly striking, upright form, yet it too remains compact, growing less than two feet tall. The thick gray-green blades are edged in black and are decidedly triangular in shape. Like Victoria, Ferdinand is known for its extreme cold tolerance, so I look forward to a long and peaceful reign.
Another of my new Agave acquisitions is an Agave americana variety called medio-picta. This is a beautifully variegated plant with bold white center stripes set against blue-green edges. Medio-picta is very compact and it makes a perfect container specimen. It is definitely listed as marginal in this area, so I doubled my chances for success by planting two—one in the ground, the other in a container that can be moved to safety.
The latest addition to my Agave aggregation is a Texas native known as Thorn-crested Agave (Agave lophantha). I’ve seen colonies of this well-armed plant around the city for years. The specimen I bought is particularly glaucous, meaning it is covered with a waxy blue coating, but the foliage is typically a nice medium green. The glaucous coating is a favorite adaptation of desert plants that prevents transpiration, or loss of water through the foliage, I happen to love the bluish cast it lends to plants. Thorn-crested Agave is a compact variety that grows two to three feet tall and, according to all of the information I’ve been able to Google up on the Internet, should be a foolproof, cold-hardy choice for Austin. Just be sure not to plant it around invasive plants that will require weeding (like Bermuda grass) because, as the common name implies, this plant can be a tad, well, thorny. I read one Internet entry from North Carolina, where a gardener recounts using this Agave as a bunny barrier for his veggie patch: Bugs be gone indeed.
Alright already, I admit that I am powerless—but, do you think it would it be okay if I appeal to the Aztec Agave God as my personalized “power greater than myself?” How else will I get through step two? We’ll see how many Agaves I have next June.
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