Agaves: Details, Photos & Varieties

Photos and descriptions of the most popular agave varieties

About Agaves

Agave attenuata, blue formAmong the largest of succulents, agaves are unfazed by harsh sun, high heat and lack of rain. Their statuesque, fountainlike forms lend a sculptural element to any landscape, and contrast beautifully with fine-textured ornamentals. They also make good firebreak plants and security fences.

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.

With the exception of a few soft-leaved and variegated varieties, agaves want sun---the more the better in all but desert climates. Most are hardy to the mid- to high-20s F, and some go a lot lower.

Pests & Problems

Agave snout weevil is a concern.

Agave Victoria-reginaeSharp points at leaf tips and along leaf edges can make agaves treacherous. I snip about a quarter inch from leaves' needlelike tips with garden shears.

And those scalloped patterns on an agave's leaves? There's nothing wrong with your agave. The patterns are simply "bud imprints" caused by spines and teeth pressing into the flesh of inner leaves before they unfurl.

Containers

Agaves smaller than basketballs make excellent potted plants. Small agaves---there are many exquisite ones---look good displayed one to a pot.

Agave 'Baccarat'

Pruning

When pruning a damaged leaf, keep in mind that a straight-across cut at its midsection may 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 it all the way to the trunk.

Propagation

Large agaves that pup (not all do) can be thugs. They'll grow and spread rapidly, especially when given good soil and regular irrigation.

Agave americana with pupsOne of the most widely grown is A. americana (century plant), because it offsets so prolifically (free plants!) and needs no care at all...until those pups start to get big and form an unruly, ever-expanding colony.

See the Resources section of this page for some great alternatives to A. americana that don't spread quite as enthusiastically.

All about agavesAll 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.

As it completes its life cycle, a mature rosette that has graced a garden for years sends up an asparagus-like flower stalk (most, but not all, branch).

This dwarfs the plant and saps its energy until it eventually collapses and dies.

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

Agave americana post-bloom with pupsFlowers along the stalk eventually turn into miniplants (bulbils) or seed capsules from which new agaves can be grown.

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

Resources

Videos

What You MUST Know About Century Plants (Agave americana) - Why this plant is both terrific and terrible

Six Great Agaves for Your Garden - Fantastic (and better) alternatives to Agave americana

Agave guiengola (with Kelly Griffin) - The gentle giant of succulents

Variegated Agaves (with Kelly Griffin) - Fabulous multi-colored agaves

How to Trim Foxtail Agave (A. attenuata) - This common agave has soft, smooth, nonspiny leaves that are prone to sun scorch in summer and frost burn in winter. Damaged tips collapse and turn white. If this has happened to yours, you'll need to trim them.

 

Books

The content on this page is edited from the intro to Agaves in "Succulents A to Z" in Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.) - see pp. 177-184. The book includes photos and descriptions of significant varieties and shows how to grow and use them beautifully in gardens and landscapes.

 

Succulent Photo Galleries

Aeoniums

Aloes 

Cold-Hardy Succulents

Crassulas 

Echeverias

 

Answers to Your Questions

Q: Mark Ellis wrote:

Morning from Edinburgh, Scotland , could you please give me any tips on over wintering Agave's in countries with cold / wet winters , I don't have a greenhouse , I lost 23 last winter , they were in a plastic greenhouse , all rotted .

A:  Hi Mark — Oh, dear, how disappointed you must be. Basically, the secret to growing any plant anywhere is to replicate its native conditions as much as possible. Agaves are from arid regions with lots of sun and minimal rainfall. Can you grow them in Edinburgh? Sure. You can grow them in the Antarctic…if you want to badly enough and have enough space and money for a climate-controlled greenhouse. I saw agaves flourishing in Montreal…at the Montreal Botanic Garden, in an immense greenhouse. And, for that matter, at Kew. But in private collections? Best to stick with small ones you can keep indoors and give much the same conditions you like yourself. -- Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave Photos

My photos of agaves are identified according to genus and species, and sometimes common names. (I'm not a big fan of common names, which can vary from region to region and grower to grower.)

Use my photos of agaves and other succulents to...

  • Help you learn the names of succulents.
  • Create a Pinterest page of plants you want for your garden.
  • Set as your computer screen's wallpaper.
  • Make a custom greeting card or other work of art.
  • Help you ID what you already have.

I have other pages with photos of succulents by genus (see list at bottom).  If you think I've ID'd these or any plants incorrectly, I definitely want to know. Please leave a comment or email me. Enjoy exploring this marvelous genus! — Debra Lee Baldwin

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