Living in Austin, you begin to be accustomed to seeing Agave everywhere.
You see them in front yards as statement plants, in commercial landscaping with rows of A. paryi var. truncata, in abandoned lots growing wild and untamed with pups overtaking the land. They’re everywhere, but I never get bored of seeing the variety of colors, range of sizes, and sculptural forms of this amazing genus. Agave are not only excellent landscape plants in hardy zones, but have also had important historical uses for humans dating back centuries!
First let’s talk about what Agave are not. Agave are not cacti. Do not point to an Agave and say, “what a cool cactus!” They will not appreciate it. They are more closely related to Yucca, Manfreda, Hosta.. just to name a few. They are also not a type of Aloe. They’re not even somewhat related to Aloe even though they can sometimes look strikingly similar with their rosette structures. Their similar appearances are a result of convergent evolution, which is to say two genetically disparate plants have evolved to have similar physical features (this is a whole other highly interesting topic!).
Now, let’s talk about what Agave are. The term Agave refers not to an individual plant, but to a genus of plants native to the New World — that is, native to Mexico and the Southwestern part of the United States. Agave are succulents. Their leaves are thick, fleshy, and store their nutrients, which makes it a drought-tolerant plant. Agave are also monocots, a type of plant that has a single cotyledon or embryonic leaf. The structure of all Agave is the rosette with leaves emerging from a central apex and fanning out as it ages.
One curious thing about this genus is that they are are monocarpic. Once it flowers, the plant will die. It is unavoidable. You can cut the bloom stalk before it starts going, but it will eventually try to flower again. After the mother plant dies, the withering plant will be replaced by many pups.
The flower stalk can achieve heights in excess of 30 feet. It’s really one of the most impressive flowerings I’ve ever seen. The height is, of course, dramatic, but so is the circumference of the bloom stalk needed to support the flowers in the air. The stalk of the Agave americana is so wide that I can’t even wrap both hands around it. If you see your Agave developing a bloom stalk, know that you will need to replace the plant once it finishes (or let nature do it’s thing — but it won’t be the prettiest thing to watch it wither away). Keep in mind that flowering takes many decades to occur, so when you plant an Agave, replacing it after flowering is usually someone else’s problem.
The Maguey and Mesoamerican Culture
Agave has been, and continues to be, a genus of plants that have been historically important to Mesoamerican civilizations, and in particular the Aztec culture, which thrived between 1300 and 1521 (bet you didn’t think we’d go this far back on a blog about Agave). In this context, the Agave is often referred to as the maguey plant, referring in particular to the Agave americana. In American culture, the term century plant is occasionally used to refer to the same plant.
Anyway, the maguey had a very significant role in these cultures. People used the fiber from the fleshy leaves and used it to create rope and cloth. Parts of the plant were also used for basketmaking and – get this – the thorns of the leaves were used in ritual bloodletting. Probably the most important use of the maguey in this context was the creation of pulque, a sweetened fermented drink created from Agave sap. This drink, often used in ritual settings, has been made for centuries. It was considered to be a sacred drink from gods, associated in particular with the goddess Mayahuel who represented fertility and nourishment.
Mayahuel was depicted in codices as physically intertwined in the maguey (see image). Apparently she’s so dang fertile that she also has 400 breasts to feed all her children. From my understanding, she is actually the personification of the maguey itself, which is why she is depicted literally growing out of an Agave. In many of the depictions, the Agave will actually be flowering. I think this folklore tells us how historically important this plant was and is to human civilization. How many other plants have a goddess created for them?
I’ve actually tried to limit the amount of babies my Agave produce because I like the singular rosette look, so I often remove the pups. I’m starting to think I’m just encouraging the plants to grow more pups — kind of like deadheading!
The best way to propagate is to split off these pups. There are a few species that tend to stay singular, but most will produce pups in abundance, often through a rhizome structure (see video above). In landscaping, pups can often appear feet away from the mother plant by utilizing a rhizome to spread. In either case, just break off the pup from the rhizome, plant it in its own pot, and it will develop roots quickly. Do not overwater until it has established roots.
You can also propagate from seeds. I’ve had both an easy time and a difficult time triggering germination. Seeds may need some scarification to get them going along with a deep soak the night before you plant them. I use a plastic bag to seal the seed and pot and create a mini-greenhouse. With enough heat, they should germinate. Keep them moist and slowly introduce them to sun.
So if you’re not interested in ritual bloodletting or taking a sip of the sacred Pulque, there is another drink that you will almost certainly be familiar with. Tequila, which comes from the the aptly named Agave tequilana or Blue Agave, is a distilled alcohol from the town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico. Making tequila starts with the piña of the Blue Agave, which is the core of the Agave without any of the leaves.
You chuck this piña into a furnace where it basically cooks until the sugars inside begin to break down. It results in a mash and the liquid is extracted and allowed to ferment. This fermented liquid is then distilled at least twice. Ever wondered why there is white, amber, and dark tequilas? Once distilled, the alcohol can either be aged for a short time and sold (silver) or aged in wooden barrels for longer periods of time, which result in the amber color.
Remember, maneuvering this plant to get to the piña is not easy. These plants are large, thorny, and in often hot climates. Tequila making remains a very manual process, so remember the work that went into your next drink!
Most care info can be carried across all species in the Agave genus. These are drought-tolerant plants, which is especially good if you live in the desert. These plants can also take the heat, as in direct sun for 12 hours a day in 105º-110º weather. They may appreciate additional water during that time, but they will take what they can get.
In fact, that’s my general approach to Agave. They will take what they can get.
They are, in my opinion, a greedy genus. If allowed, they will take as much heat, sun, water, and root space as they can get. If they don’t, they’ll do just fine, so it’s helpful to give them constraints.
You’ll soon find out that Agave will always outgrow a container if you let them. They are aggressive rooters and will fill a pot up with roots quickly. Normally, I would say use an appropriately sized container for a plant with such an extensive network of roots. But Agave can handle being underpotted. They may grow roots out of the drainage hole, but they will survive.
They will also take as much water as you give them. If you are diligently watering them throughout the summer, they will appreciate you. But they will also grow just fine without an ounce of water during the month of July.
They are a resilient genus.
A big part of why the Agave is so beloved is the beautiful hues the leaves can achieve. To get the best color, you’ll want to place your agave in a spot with as much direct sun as possible. Their brilliance will truly shine.
Overall, this is a slow-growing, but remarkably interesting genus that is interwoven in culture. They are also a very resilient and forgiving genus that will reward you with their incredible forms and interesting colors. If you live in a hot or drought prone climate, try one of the many Agave species that match your needs and landscape. The best part about these plants is that they require very little care and look great year round.