Agaves for Your Landscape
By Jim Notestein, aka Mr. Agave, 352-372-2107
The word agave derives from the Greek word agavos, meaning admirable, noble, splendid. This word was chosen by the famous botanical classifier Linnaeus. He may have had in mind the Greek mythological person Agave, who was a daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. By choosing a classical Old World name for a New World plant, he emphasized the importance of agaves for the first Americans. A common term for these spiny, salt-tolerant, drought-resistant, succulent herbs is “century plants.” In very dry areas, these plants can take many years to bloom. In the southeast U. S., with our increased humidity and warmth, some agaves can bloom in just six years or so. Perhaps we might call our regional agaves “decade plants.” Their clocks are running faster.
Agaves are native only to the new world. Their natural populations are widely distributed in the southwestern U. S., into Mexico, Central America and into Venezuela and Colombia. The Caribbean Islands also contain agaves. The heartland of agaves is Mexico. As explorers from elsewhere discovered agaves, they were immediately introduced to many new regions globally. The plants were once an important source of food, soap, and medicine. Leaf fibers were used for clothing, rope, and paper, Agaves are famous as the source of intoxicating beverages tequila, mescal, and pulque. Drink responsibly.
Florida has two native agave species – Agave decipiens and Agave neglecta. Their common names are respectively Tree Agave and Wild Century Plant. Specimens have been gathered from many Florida counties for various herbaria collections. A. decipiens is rather rare and A. neglecta is extremely rare. Mr. Agave has an impressive inventory of Tree Agave. It is one of the newest Florida native plants to be re-introduced to Florida. Call today.
Agaves are members of the Amaryllis family and may be called “woody lilies.” Their leaves are arranged in rosettes on a stem that may be nearly invisible or grow to a stalk several feet high. Their spiral and upward pointing leaf pattern allows rain to be channeled to the root zone. Agave leaves are typically thick, rigid, and full of juicy tissue. Agave bracteosa ( Squid Agave ) has soft leaf ends & no marginal teeth. Most agaves have hard, sharp ends that in pre-industrial times were used by native people for pins, needles, and even nails Thoughtful agave growers tip-prune terminal leaf spines to reduce puncture hazards. Untipped agaves provide an effective security service - “better than burglar bars.”
Always plant agaves with a thought to their mature size. Some agaves have an attractive embossed pattern on both sides of their leaves. These impressions are created by the edges of adjacent leaves when all are tightly compressed in the central bud. Smaller agaves are great container plants – indoors or out.
Agaves are a virtual chemical cauldron at different stages of their lives. Just before flowering, the agave has increased carbohydrates to fuel the last phase of its life – reproduction. Agave flowers can be eaten raw or with dip, added to salads, stir-fried or fried in batter. People from prehistoric times to the present remove the leaves, harvest the stem, roast it, and press out the sugar-rich products.
Agave syrup has a low-glycemic index. This means that when consumed, agave syrup won't cause a sharp rise or fall in blood sugar. Agave syrup is often recommended for persons needing to avoid refined sugar or synthetic substitutes.
Natural food stores generally carry Agave Nectar. In Florida, Publix grocery stores carry Agave Nectar in their organic food section.
Agave plants contain saponins and fructans. Saponins, which are found on many plant roots, including ginseng, have anti-inflammatory properties and can boost the human immune system. With its antibacterial qualities, agave syrup has long been used to treat open wounds. Inulin is a type of fructan. Studies suggest that inulin can be effective in weight loss because of its low impact on blood sugar and its ability to increase satiety and decrease appetite. Agave syrup can soothe a savage “sweet tooth.” Inulin is associated with lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of certain cancers, and increasing to absorption of nutrients, such as isoflavones, calcium, and magnesium. Ethno-botanists and traditional medicine researchers continue to explore the potential of agaves to improve health.
Agaves withstand climatic extremes – high heat, drought, strong winds, and salt spray. Most agaves will tolerate frost and many will survive at or well below freezing. Agaves are generally free of pests and diseases and are less prone to nutrient deficiencies. They will respond to time release fertilizer and supplemental irrigation. Agaves do better in well-drained soils. Most agaves should be kept dry in winter – excess water dilutes their antifreeze (glycerides).
When agaves bloom, you will notice. The bloom stalk in many species is nearly six inches thick, grows up to a foot per day, and can top out at over twenty feet tall! Agave flowers are pollinated by nectar-feeding bats, hummingbirds, and many kinds of insects. Most agaves produce viable seed. Some agaves produce bulbils: juvenile plants on the bloom stalk instead of seeds. Many agaves also produce small plants called offsets or “pups” that emerge from the parent agave root zone. These may be transplanted after separation by serrated knife or shovel.
Most agaves are monocarpic – blooming only once – at the end of their life cycle. A few agaves are polycarpic and flower repeatedly. Agaves can easily cross-pollinate – naturally or with our help. Many new agave cultivars are being introduced from tissue culture. Genetic “sports” or variants of agaves are possible. Keep your eyes open for Nature’s “wild cards.”
In the past, Mescalero Apache Indians, of the Arizona region, fashioned short hollow sections of agave bloom stalk into the only stringed instrument invented in the Americas – the Apache violin – “wood that sings.” Played for ceremonial as well as personal reasons, it was their home-entertainment system. The hollow bloom stalk can also be fashioned into a new world didgeridoo. Mr. Agave seeks craftspersons who will collaborate to create longer and lower-toned Agave Violins as part of a yet-to-be-organized Agave String Band.
There are reliable reports of agave theme landscapes that have suppressed residential area wild fires in the western U.S. The Florida Forestry Service has recently created a demonstration facility and public information for “Fire-wise” landscapes. Fire-wise landscaping could enjoy a premium discount in fire insurance policies. People are needed to design, create, & certify “Fire-wise” landscapes. Firewalls in the landscape -- Mr. Agave meets Mr. Gecko?
Agaves attract artisan gardeners, plant collectors, and landscape professionals. Agaves are a great solution for specimen containers. You can create a western look for your landscape with the prehistoric, bold-textured, colorful agaves. You can create an architectural novelty in your garden by installing an agave atop a soil-filled, large diameter pipe – that is well embedded in the ground. Rather than Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian column tops (capitols) – you will have an “agave capitol”. It will be out of harm's way and visible from a greater distance.
For hand weeding around agaves and other difficult-to-reach places, the fish hook removing tool is excellent. It's available at sporting goods outlets. Made of stainless steel, it has a spring-loaded, pistol-grip, a 12” long neck, and nimble alligator jaws that will grip stubborn weeds and pluck them out by the roots.
Granular, pre-emergent herbicides in shaker dispensers can be found in garden centers. This acts like birth-control for weeds. It will last for about six months. One brand is PREEN. Get creative with choice of mulch. It’s a great way to control weeds, conserve moisture, & build soil quality. Get that 'wow' factor.
Inquire about agaves at your local retail garden center. Customer interest affects inventory. You can become an advocate for the noble agave.
In June of 2009, Green Goblet & Whale’s Tongue agaves bloomed at the same time. Both are cold hardy. Ovatifolia (Whale’s Tongue) is polycarpic. Every day for several weeks, flowers were cross pollinated as they presented receptive female parts. About 300 seedlings are now about one inch wide. No earlier crosses of these agaves are know to have occurred.
Mr. Agave has the following material (from 4” to 15 gallon size): Call Jim at 352-372-2107 for current specifications, quantities and prices or to order a video disc catalog.
Agave americana (Big Blue) – mature size: 8' H x 10' W – hardy to 15 F.
Agave americana can be the poster child of agaves for much of the world. It has the longest ornamental history. It produces numerous off-sets or pups. It was the species that Linnaeas used to describe the genus. Mexican in nativity, it offers many hybrid forms and colors.
A. americana variety: 'Gainesville' (Gator Century) – 5' x 5' – hardy to15 F.
It’s not clear how this agave got the ‘Gainesville’ part of its name. Shorter & wider leaves offer more surface to present the embossed leaf pattern.
A. americana variety: marginata (Golden Octopus) -- 8' x 10 – hardy 20 F.
This agave will, in maturity, cover more area than any other. Variegated leaves means less chlorophyll and a slower clock.
A. angustifolia (Caribbean Green) – 3’ x 3’ - hardy to 30 F.
This agave appeared at Agave Land as a non-variegated sport of one of it’s striped sisters. A solid green may have been the first form of the species.
A. angustifolia variety: marginata (Bright Stripe) – 3' x 3' – hardy to 30 F.
Angustifolia pups freely & is native to eastern states of Mexico & south to Costa Rica. Often used as a natural fence, it is good for containers. It tolerates wide soil conditions & will accept water without complaint.
A. bracteosa (Squid) – 30” x 30” – hardy to 10 F (polycarpic & no sharps!).
Squid agave is very unusual – it doesn’t die after blooming. Pleasantly, it has no terminal spine & minimal if any lateral teeth. It is the most huggable agave. Native to eastern Mexico – it is a cliff-dweller – driven there by herbivores. Plants tend to be solitary with few pups. A great container plant.
A. celsii (Nuevo) – 3’ x 3’ – hardy to 25 F.
Celsii is medium-sized with very wide mid-leaf. Native to eastern Mexico, it is uncommon in cultivation. Tolerates shade & looks good in container.
A. decipiens (Tree Agave) – 2' wide on trunk up to 8’ high – hardy to 30 F.
Tree agave is an important Florida native that is rare due to over-zealous clearing. Pups come from the root zone or from bulbils (little plants which form on the bloom stalk after flowers are pollinated). This agave is a winning trifecta of xeric, salt tolerance, & it doesn’t carry fire in the landscape.
A. desmettiana (Cuban Agave) – 4' x 4' – hardy to 30 F.
Desmettiana has been in cultivation so long that no natural populations are known. This means that from a very early time, it was removed from the wild to be extensively cultivated. It will tolerate considerable shade & water. It has no marginal teeth & is good for decorative containers.
A. filamentosa (Whiskers) – 2’ x 2’ – hardy to 20 F.
Whiskers is solitary with few if any pups. The many small hairs on leaf margins give a light, glowing effect. It looks great in a decorative pot.
A. ghiesbreghtii (Montecito) -- 18” x 18” – hardy to 25 F.
With a long cultivation history, Montecito has many hybrids. Good pot plant.
A. lechuguilla (Tex-Mex) – 18” x 18 “– hardy to 10 F (keep dry if cold).
Lechuguilla ranges from north Mexico into the bordering American states. Tolerates extreme heat & full sun. Great container plant, there are many hybrids. It used to be an important plant for soap production. It is still an important traditional fiber source.
A. parrasana (Hen & Chicks) – 6” x 18” – hardy to 30 F.
Parrasana is native to south-east Mexico. It is a fine plant for container.
A. Parryi variety: truncata (Arizona) – 2' x 2' -- hardy to 10 F.
Parryi is native to Mexican state of Durango & north into Arizona & New Mexico. It thrives in partial shade & is a historical source of mescal. Good for container gardening. Keep dry in cold weather.
A. salmiana variety: ferox (Green Goblet) – 6' x 6' – hardy to 20 F.
Green Goblet variety is the most common agave in European gardens. It is native to central Mexico. Salmiana is the main species for pulque production.
A. titanota (Rocky Oaxaca) – 18” x 18” – hardy to 30 F.
Titanota is generally solitary or with few offsets. Uncommon in cultivation, it looks attractive in a decorative container.
A. univittata variety: compacta (Sharp Carpet) – 12” x 18” -- hardy to 10 F.
Univittata is native to Rio Grande valley of Texas & north Mexico. It thrives in light shade. No ethnobotanical uses are recorded. Many hybrids in cultivation. An excellent agave for the container garden.
A. univittata variety: compacta varigata (Striped Carpet).
A. utahensis variety: eborispina (Grand Canyon) – 2' x 2' – hardy to 10 F.
Utahensis is the most northern of agaves – found in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, & California. It is uncommon in cultivation. It wants to be very dry when cold. Very attractive in containers.
A. vilmoriniana (Octopus) – 6’ x 6’ – hardy to 25 F.
Octopus is native to Mexico as a cliff-dwelling species – driven there by herbivores. Propagation is largely by bulbils. Enjoys light shade & has toothless leaves. Native people still use it as a cleanser. Mature leaves are pounded to a fray and bunched together as a brush. When wetted, this brush is used to clean clothes. The compound smilagen is present in large concentrations in the mature leaves. Research suggests possible uses of this chemical in cancer prevention & treatment.
A. weberi (Smoothy) – 5' x 5' – hardy to 15 F.
Weberi is native to arid Mexico & the southwestern U.S.. This species is not known to have a wild form – indicating a long history of cultivation. It tolerates full sun & partial shade. Extreme shade creates a “floppy” form. A bold specimen – useful for matched pair installations.
Shipping based on quantity & distance & destination: We prefer not to. We are focusing on a regional market of about 50 miles radius or about one hour drive time from Gainesville. Put together a group of agave buyers. The trip to Agave Land will be fun to share. Mr. Agave will make it worth while. Bring your camera.
Discounts are available – spend more – save more (5% off for each $100 value.)
Individual selection (you pick the plants): Enjoy a guided tour of our nursery.
Specials – call for details – 352-372-2107
Trademarked agave names were created to convey - in a word or two – the character or origin of each particular agave. This adds market buzz.
Over-sized specimens are available from time to time when an individual agave is allowed to grow larger than is often the case for a certain container size. Value and price are elevated with “the big ones”.
Leaf tip attenuation - another “florist quality feature”: Mr. Agave generally “nips the tip” of the needle at leaf’s end. You’ll appreciate this when you move & install your agaves. As they continue to grow, you get to decide “how sharp” you want your agaves to be.
Winter & water: Don’t water in winter. Mr. Agave takes a conservative stance on low temps each of his agaves will tolerate without “pouting”. Factors that can offset low temps are planting under a tree canopy, planting in a wind-sheltered area, planting near a heat-storing object (building, large rock, or paved area). To promote drainage and thus a dryer root zone – plant your agaves on a slightly elevated setting in a porous soil mix. Consider Frost Cloth – available at garden centers, catalogs, & on line. This white, porous spun fabric is very light, will allow sun & rain to penetrate. One layer will raise the temperature about 6 F. Secure the edges to prevent wind disturbance.
Buyer’s responsibilities: Agaves are alive. Even the most drought-tolerant plants appreciate help getting established. In the right setting, agaves will measure up to your expectations and reflect your attentions.
Mr. Agave’s collection includes unnamed varieties. We recently rescued 3 very large Dasylirion wheeleri, 2 full-grown Hesperaloe funifera, a mature Yucca rostrata, & Agave ovatifolia (it bloomed in 2009 & lives on!)
Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants – Mary & Gary Irish – Timber Press
Mr. Agave salutes Alan Shapiro of Grandiflora Nursery for his support.
Mr. Agave has been growing in north central Florida for twelve years. Agave Land is about 20 minutes NE of Gainesville. Plan to visit soon. 352-372-2107
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