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Big Blue’s Life and Demise

The largest succulent ever to grace my half-acre garden was an Agave americana we called “Big Blue.” With six-foot leaves lined with sharp teeth, it looked capable of eating guests who shot selfies with it. 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.

Agave americana at maturity (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Big Blue at maturity, 2017

Big Blue and I didn’t always get along. It was armed and dangerous, and on occasion snagged my skin and drew blood. This was usually my fault. I liked to lean in and take photos of its bud imprints—scalloped lines caused by leaves that had pressed against each other before they unfurled.

It also tried to take over the garden, producing pups (clones) from its roots. These popped up in all directions, including uphill. This tendency for century plants to reproduce like feral dogs was probably why my neighbors put it out in the trash in the first place. But when I noticed the 2-foot pup, I knew it would look good in a pot, its leaves contrasting with terra-cotta orange.

Agave americana pup in terracotta pot (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Big Blue in a terra-cotta pot, 2003

That was seven years before the publication of my first book about succulents, and I had much to learn much about agaves. I didn’t think the pup would live because it had been severed at ground level. But after a few months, it plumped and thrived. I kept it in the pot—where it stayed small—and a few years later planted it in the garden.

Big Blue grew ever larger as other ornamentals came and went. A Bailey’s acacia planted near it in 2007 became a 20-foot tree. Every spring, while hosing fallen acacia flowers from the agave’s center, I admired how its guttered leaves funneled water to the roots.

Agave americana, half grown (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Big Blue commands the garden, April 2007

Agave americana loves irrigation but doesn’t need it, so early-on I capped nearby risers. Peevishly, Big Blue broke a pipe that, located beneath barbed leaves, was impossible to repair. (I should have seen that coming.) After shutting down the line, I spent countless summer afternoons hose-watering.

Big Blue in 2010. It’s about half its eventual size.

Big Blue in 2010. It’s about half its eventual size.

A landscape designer friend said, “You know, Debra, that americana is going to grow into the pathway.” That seemed unlikely—it was five feet away. I replied, “Then I’ll just move the pathway.” And six years later, I did.

We wore protective glasses when digging-up pups. I gave small century plants to whomever would take them. But because they came with cautions, most went without adoption and languished in 1-gallon nursery pots. Leaves shriveled, then swelled during winter rains. Some of the little rascals rooted through holes in their pots.

Agave pups

In 2011, Big Blue’s pups had become large and tricky to remove.

Agave americana (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

In 2016, its lovely fan of azure leaves framed a new flagstone patio.

Big Blue and I made a YouTube video: “What You MUST know about Century Plants.” In it I explain “the pupping thing” and the mistake of not knowing how big an agave will get before planting it.

Agave americana in bloom (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Midsummer 2018: Big Blue’s bloom stalk added a temporary tree to the garden.

In February, 2018, Big Blue at last attained the sugar content needed for flowering—a grand achievement that produced masses of flowers followed by seed pods. That summer, the agave’s 30-foot flower spike hummed with pollinators.

Agave americana flower stalk (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

By autumn 2018, seed pods replaced flowers.

Keeping what remained of Big Blue wasn’t optional; its sailboat-mast spike was leaning at a 45-degree angle toward the street. I videoed the agave’s removal that October.

A few years earlier, knowing Big Blue’s demise was inevitable, I decided to keep a well-positioned offset. That pick-of-the-litter is maybe a fourth of its eventual size. I don’t get sentimental about succulents, but I am glad to have Big Blue Two…although (sigh) it’s started pupping.

Agave americana (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Spring, 2019: A stump is all that’s left of Big Blue. Its clonal replacement is at left.

See Big Blue’s chain-saw exit on my YouTube channel: “Agave americana Bloom and Removal” (4:44). Also:“What You MUST know about Century Plants” (2:50).

Related info on this site:

Agaves: What You Need to Know

No-Water Succulents for Southern California Gardens

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7 Comments

  1. William A. Avellan on April 5, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    We will miss you big blue!

  2. Jeremy on April 6, 2019 at 10:58 am

    What a lovely “bio-graphy” and tribute to your foundling pup. Well deserved, too, after 20 years. Thank you for the post and the corresponding videos. I enjoyed them.

    • debraleebaldwi on April 6, 2019 at 12:01 pm

      Thank you, Jeremy! I’m so glad you enjoyed them! Debra

  3. Duke Benadom on April 8, 2019 at 8:15 am

    Very few species of Agave can be “chopped up” without potential injury to the person doing the chopping (or chainsawing). When most members of the genus flower, all of the chemicals (juices produced by the flowering [dying] process) become concentrated in the core and in the bases of the leaves; ergo, the beginnings of tequila (just five species are used for that). Cutting into this tissue releases both liquid and gaseous chemicals that are quite dangerous to humans. If the person doing the cutting passes out due to the fumes, and falls into the plant, death can actually occur due to the person breathing in concentrated fumes… and little to no oxygen. I don’t think much has been written on this yet, but it’s factual. Again, as with most things that I reveal, I have personally witnessed, at least partially, the effects of the stated scenario. No, I didn’t die, but I did manage to get extremely nauseated and came close to passing out. The fumes are overwhelming on many species and I highly recommend either waiting until the plant has dried up or digging it out by the roots while in one piece. They are also much safer to chop up prior to the beginning of the flowering process.

    All the best,
    Duke

    • debraleebaldwi on April 8, 2019 at 9:17 am

      Hi Duke — Your personal experience with such matters is valuable and insightful. Is Agave americana one of those that releases chemicals you’d consider “quite dangerous?” I appreciate your advice that people either remove the plant before it blooms, or wait until the plant has dried up. Previously with blooming agaves, I removed the stalk but not the core until it dried. This was not for the reasons you state but rather when dry it’s lighter in weight. NOTE TO READERS: Duke Benadom is a succulent book author, expert and long-time member of the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society. I recommend his comment on treating Aloe mite, as well. — Debra

  4. Harry L. Mallory on July 9, 2019 at 6:24 am

    The question, does the breed of century plant determine if it comes from pups or seeds? We just had one flower & fall over here in Hereford, Az. & would like to have some more. It pulled the roots out of the ground & I see no sign of pups. Thank you. If needed I can send pictures.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on July 9, 2019 at 10:04 am

      Hi Harry — Yes, some reproduce from seeds, others from bulbils (little plants) along the bloom spike. DLB

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