You might assume I’m pleased whenever I see a new succulent garden in my neighborhood. Most often I am, but to be honest, I’m occasionally dismayed. I’m seeing a lot of Agave americana (century plant). This succulent seduces people with its gray-blue leaves (sometimes striped with yellow); its upright, fountainlike form; and its scalloped bud imprints (impressions leaves make on each other before unfurling). Plus, it needs no irrigation other than rainfall. Century plants that are knee-height are easy to obtain and make good-looking additions to any dry garden.
So, what’s not to love? Just wait. Century plants become enormous, are wickedly spined, and they pup (produce offsets from their roots). A LOT of pups. Moreover, when an americana blooms—which takes a couple of decades, hence the name “century plant”—it dies and will be an eyesore until removed. Below is one post-flowering, after its leaves had been trimmed to the trunk. Note the chopped-off flower spike and numerous pups ready to take Mom’s place.
Admittedly, the large succulents I’m most fond of in my own half-acre garden happen to be century plants. They really stand out, and serve as dramatic focal points and living sculptures. But I have room for them, routinely blunt their menacing tips with garden shears, and pay a gardener to remove pups.
My point (ha) is that before planting an americana, ask yourself if you’ll be OK with an agave the size of an VW beetle in that spot a decade hence; if you’re willing to dig up and discard its numerous offspring (which, if you don’t, will form an ever-spreading colony like the one below); if 5-feet-long, toothed, sharp-tipped leaves might be a problem; and if it can be accessed when the time comes to remove it.
Got boulders? My neighborhood in the foothills north of San Diego is a big rock pile. Plop an americana in a natural basin amid boulders and voila: instant garden. Thus confined and set at a distance from children and dogs, the plant can’t cause trouble.
Doubtless century plants are popping up everywhere because they’re quite common and free. Ask a neighbor for a pup, and he’ll hand you a shovel. Yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of improved Agave cultivars—like popular ‘Blue Glow’ below—that stay manageably small, don’t offset, and look stunning in gardens and landscapes.
True, pedigreed agaves aren’t free, but in most residential front yards they’re a much better choice than a feral americana, and will save you money, time and hassle in the long run. See them in my website’s Agave photo gallery and at nurseries throughout California and the Southwest. Also be sure to watch my YouTube videos: “What You MUST Know About Century Plants” (2:50), and “Six Great Agaves for Your Garden, with expert Kelly Griffin” (4:53).