Agave Care, Uses, Photos, and Varieties

What you need to know to successfully grow agaves. Gallery of 50+ garden agaves, all ID'd

About Agaves

Garden with Agave attenuata, blue form (c) Debra Lee Baldwin Most agaves are unfazed by harsh sun, high heat and minimal water. Their statuesque, fountainlike forms lend a sculptural element to any garden, and contrast beautifully with fine-textured plants. They also make good firebreak plants and security fences.

Pests & Problems

Agave snout weevil is a major concern. ALL agaves are vulnerable to this serious, rapidly spreading pest. Find out how to prevent and treat snout weevil. 

Growing Conditions

Being indigenous to the New World (the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America), larger agaves store enough moisture to get by on rainfall alone and will thrive in nutrient-poor soils.

Although agaves like water, their roots---like those of most succulents---will rot in waterlogged soil. Plant them in coarse soil that drains well. 

With the exception of a few soft-leaved and variegated varieties, agaves want sun---the more the better in all but desert climates.

Pruning

When cutting a damaged leaf, keep in mind that a straight-across cut at its midsection will spoil an agave's symmetry. It's best to make two cuts that trim the leaf to a "V" that resembles the leaf's natural tip. Or cut the leaf all the way to the trunk. See how.

Caution: Agave Dermatitis

Agave sap can cause contact dermatitis. If itching or rash develops, wash the affected area immediately. If symptoms persist, get medical care. Use common sense: The drier the agave, the less its moisture content. The fresher the agave, the greater the risk. Regardless, wear skin and eye protection. Do a patch test to determine your susceptibility.

Large agave removal

  1. Cut off the bloom spike when it forms at the top of the plant. (This doesn't stop an agave from dying, but it does prevent the stalk from turning into a tree.) See how.
    Agave bloom removal (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
  2. Saw off the agave's leaves and discard.
  3. Optional: Chop the roots and roll the pineappled core out of the way. (I was tired of looking at it and wanted to put something else there.)
  4. Let the core continue to dry. This can take six or more months.
  5. When the core is shrunken and dry, saw it into pieces for the trash.

Containers

Best small agave (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave victoriae-reginae is arguably the best small agave for pots.

Agaves smaller than basketballs make excellent potted plants. Small agaves---there are many---look best displayed one to a pot. And any large species, when young, is fine in a container.

About those spines

Trimming agave tips (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

How to trim agave tips

Sharp points at leaf tips and along leaf edges can make agaves treacherous. If this is a concern, snip about a quarter inch from needlelike tips with garden clippers.

Propagation

Nothing easier. Agaves start readily, even those lacking roots. Simply set it atop friable soil and keep it out of strong, hot sun while growing roots (they form from meristem tissue at the base). Once rooted, an agave is able to hydrate its tissues and wants (or can handle) greater sun.

How agaves reproduce, bulbils (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Bulbils from bloom stalk of octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)

One of the most widely grown is A. americana (century plant), because it offsets so prolifically from lateral roots. Baby plants that pop up are "pups." Simply dig and replant.

When an agave blooms, you may get a bonanza of baby plants, or "bulbils." Those at the bottom of the flower stalk mature first. Cut off the stalk or wait for it to fall on its own, then twist off fat little babies. In nature these may root on their own, but it's best to give them a good start. Fill a pot with potting soil, place the bulbil atop it, set in part shade and keep soil moist. When it takes off, it's ready to go in the garden.

Life Cycle

All but a few agaves are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and then die. This may take as many as 25 years, but it will happen.

Agave victoriae-reginae bloom spike (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave victoriae-reginae in bloom

As it completes its life cycle, a mature rosette that has graced a garden for years sends up a tall flower stalk. Most, but not all, branch. The plant puts all its energy into flowering and eventually dies

Some of the larger flower stalks are so thick that they need to be cut apart with a chainsaw to remove them.

Flowers along the stalk eventually turn into miniplants (bulbils) or seed capsules from which new agaves can grow.

Only the individual agave that flowers dies. In some cases---notably Agave americana species---a litter of pups will carry on.

Hardiness

Most agaves can handle cold into the 20s F if kept dry, and some go a lot lower. Based on info from agave experts and nurseries, I include the lowest temperature those shown in my Agave Gallery can handle.

Resources

Where to buy agaves

If you're in Southern CA, see my list of succulent nurseries and destinations.

If you're in Tucson: Starr Nursery.

Elsewhere, check with your local Cactus & Succulent Society of America chapter.

 

Videos

***NEW*** Hidden Agave Nursery's Stunning Succulent Rarities (8:11) Jeremy Spath specializes in species and cultivars that don't get overly large, perform well and are exceptionally beautiful.

Agave Essentials and Essential Agaves (14:36) How to select and grow agaves, plus 30 varieties for landscapes and gardens.

Agave video

What You MUST Know About Century Plants (Agave americana) (2:50) Why this large succulent is both terrific and terrible.

Century Plant Life, Death & Removal (4:45) What to do when your Agave americana blooms and dies.

Six Great Agaves for Your Garden (4:53) Lovely alternatives to Agave americana.

Agave guiengola (with Kelly Griffin) (5:01) The gentle giant of succulents.

Variegated Agaves in Hybridizer Kelly Griffin's Garden (4:33) Glorious multi-colored agaves.

Grow Agave attenuata (foxtail agave) (3:02) See striped hybrids of this popular soft-leaved species.

How to Trim Foxtail Agave (A. attenuata) What to do when soft, smooth, leaves scorch in summer or are damaged by frost in winter.

Grow Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor' (2:27) This gorgeous small agave is gorgeous in gardens and containers.

 

Books

For more information, see the Agave sections of my books Succulents Simplified and Designing with Succulents.

 

More on this site

Agaves Handle Summer Heat With few exceptions, agaves want sun—the more the better in all but desert climates... [continue reading]

Agave Snout Weevil Prevention and Treatment ...a half-inch-long black beetle with a downward-curving proboscis that enables it to pierce an agave’s core, where it lays its eggs...[continue reading]

Big Blue's Life and Demise Agave americana is commonly called “century plant” because it seems to take forever to flower and die, but Big Blue’s lifespan was only 20 years...[continue reading]

Testing Mangaves in My Garden Mangave is an intergeneric cross of Manfreda and Agave...[continue reading]

Discover the best agaves

Discover the best agaves for your landscape in my 15-minute video: Agave Essentials and Essential Agaves.

Agave Gallery

If you think I've ID'd these or any plants incorrectly, I definitely want to know. Please leave a comment or email me. I hope you enjoy exploring this marvelous genus! — Debra Lee Baldwin

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Hidden Agave nursery garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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Agave snout weevil damage (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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Agave sap (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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