Agaves are popular as ornamental plants and sources of food, beverage, medicine, and fiber. The leaves, stalks, flowers, and sap all are edible. One of the most commonly grown species is Agave americana, commonly known as Century Plant. The common name refers to the long time the plant takes to flower.
All Agaves are characterized by succulent or leathery leaves that form rosettes from just 6 inches (15 cm) to more than 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter. The leaves vary in size, shape, texture, and color. Leaf margins are usually lined with teeth and tipped with a stiff, sharp spine. A few species have leathery, unarmed leaves. When the plant matures, a tall, branched, or unbranched stalk grows out from the center of the rosette and produces many long-lasting flowers. In some species, the inflorescences can reach more than 33 feet (10 m) in height. Flowers are shortly tubular, in shades of white, yellow, and green, and produce capsule fruits.
Most species are monocarpic. After the development of fruit, the rosette dies. However, throughout their lifetime, most Agaves produce rhizomatous suckers that grow into new plants. A few Agave species are polycarpic and can flower several times.
The generic name "Agave" is derived from the Greek word "agauē," feminine of "agauos," meaning "noble" or "illustrious."
Growing Conditions for Agave
Agaves grow best in hot, dry climates but can also be grown in colder climates in pots if given winter protection.
These plants require full sun to partial shade. If you are growing Agaves indoors, choose a bright, sunny window with as much sun as possible. Plants that are grown in low-light conditions become etiolated. Agave plants love going outside from spring to fall. Too much direct sunlight, when plants are not acclimated, can cause sunburn.
Agaves will tolerate most soils as long as they have good drainage, but they prefer sandy or rocky soil.
During the growing season, Agave plants like warm temperatures, while in winter, when resting, they like cooler temperatures. Most are only cold hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8a to 9b, 10 to 30 °F (-12.2 to -1.1 °C). A few species, like Agave parryi, are hardy down to USDA hardiness zone 5a, -20 °F (-28.9 °C).
You can grow Agaves in any size container because they are shallow-rooted and do not need much soil. Be sure that your container has at least one drain hole.
General Care for Agave
Most Agaves are easy to grow and take little care once established.
Mature plants are very drought-tolerant. From spring to fall, water thoroughly your Agave when the soil becomes dry. In winter, water sparingly about once a month. Overwatering may encourage fungal root rot. When first establishing an Agave plant outdoors, water once or twice a week.
Plants in containers require more frequent watering than those in the ground.
Give your Agaves a small amount of fertilizer in the spring during the first two years. Established plants seem to take care of themselves. Since feeding may encourage Agaves to bloom, it may lead to premature death.
When the pot becomes full of roots, it has become pot-bound. If you notice your Agave becoming pot-bound, repot it with fresh soil in a new pot slightly larger than the old one. Give the plant a week or so to readjust before you water it again. Repotting Agave can be tricky because of the sharp spikes and spines. Always wear gloves when repotting an Agave, as the sap could burn.
Agave plants typically do not need pruning unless they have dead or diseased leaves.
The leaves are pretty strong. To prune them, use strong shears, a long sharp knife, or a sharp curved pruning saw to minimize any tearing and injury to yourself.
When pruning an Agave, always wear heavy gloves, pants, long-sleeved shirts, and safety glasses to protect your skin and eyes from the leaf teeth, sharp spines, and contact with the sap.
How to Propagate Agave
Since it can take years to produce seeds, Agaves are usually propagated by offsets.
Agaves are easy to propagate by removing the offsets that develop around the base of an established plant. Some Agaves also produce small offsets on the flower stalks. Separate the offsets from the mother plant and remove all broken or damaged roots with a sharp knife. Remove only offsets that have developed in a plant with several leaves. Allow the offsets to dry for one week, and plant them in a pot with a well-draining soil mix. Water when the soil is dry. Roots will typically appear in two to three weeks. The best time to remove the offsets is in spring and summer.
Agave seeds are black, flat, and vary in size. The germination will be better if they are fresh. Sow the seeds in spring in a container with well-draining soil. Place the planting container in a warm place with bright, indirect sunlight and keep the soil moist until germination, which usually takes two to three weeks. The seedlings can be transplanted to individual pots when they have two or three leaves.
Pests and Diseases of Agave
Snout weevils are the most common pests of Agave. If your plants have snout weevils, the only solution is to remove the plants and throw them away.
Mealybugs and scale insects attach to the leaves and suck the juices out of them. You can remove these insects with a cotton ball dipped in some isopropyl rubbing alcohol.
Agaves can be susceptible to bacterial and fungal rots if exposed to too much moisture and humidity. Yellowing and shriveled leaves that are easy to break off are a sure sign of root rot. Use an antifungal agent occasionally to prevent infection. Remove already infected plants to prevent spread.
Toxicity of Agave
Although these plants have been used as food for centuries, some Agave species contain toxic compounds that can cause mouth, throat, or skin irritation. They are mildly toxic to cats and dogs.
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