Monday, March 19, 2012

The End Is Near

No, I'm not predicting the end of the world, or even my own demise, but rather that of some of my plant friends who have grown up and lived in my yard for longer than I have.  Life and Death are more closely connected than we think, especially in the case of agaves, whose dying mission is to reproduce themselves.  Sort of like salmon going upstream to spawn, one last mega-effort to lay eggs, and then to die.  Agaves, those succulent plants in the family Agavaceae, expend their last energy resources to send up a giant bloom stalk, flower and scatter its seeds to the wind, after which death will slowly come to the entire plant.

Bloom stalk emerging from Agave americana
I have many agaves in my yard, both large and small, of perhaps 12 different species.  The lifespan depends on the species and may vary from 7 to 40 years.  The man who founded our neighborhood in the late 1940's loved the big Agave americana (also misnamed 'century plant') so much that he named a street for it, and I'm lucky enough to live on Agave Drive. These wonderful landscape plants offer low maintenance, low water requirements and interesting sculptural forms, colors and textures.  Many species will also provide an endless supply of young 'pups', or offsets, which are clones of the parent plant.  The fleshy leaves grow in a rosette around a central spine, and are curved to channel water to the base.

But back to my friend, the big agave whose bloom stalk I noticed just the other day.  This huge stalk, looking for all the world like an asparagus spear on steroids, will grow at an amazing rate, eventually reaching 30' or more.  Small branches will emerge from the main stalk, bearing multiple buds that will open into bright yellow flowers.  Bees, bats, woodpeckers and many others will seek out the sweet nectar.  The blooms of the agaves are of particular importance to some species of nectar-feeding bats who rely on the sugar source for their migration energy.

Native only to the Americas, agaves have been grown in this valley and Mexico for thousands of years by native peoples who prized the many gifts the agave had to offer.  Most of you are familiar with the  famous agave product - tequila.  A drink distilled from the juices of the heart, the name tequila can only be used to refer to the product of the blue agave, and which is made in the state of Jalisco (and a few surrounding areas) in Mexico.  Made with any other agave, or in a different area, and the drink must be called mezcal.  A type of fermented 'beer' can also be produced and is called pulque.

But, in addition to the liquor, agaves have much more to offer.  The dried leaves are separated into fibers and used to make rope, brooms, baskets and other woven products.  The heart, similar to that of an artichoke, can be roasted and eaten, or the juice extracted to make agave nectar (miel).  Today agave nectar is commercially available and is used as a syrup or honey substitute.  The spent, dried bloom stalks are sturdy and used for constructing ramadas or other structures.

Medicinal uses, too, are important.  According to Mark Dimmit of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, "The complex chemicals in this family have many uses. Compresses for wounds have been made from macerated agave pulp, and juices from leaves and roots were used in tonics. But beware-sap from many agaves can cause severe dermatitis. The juice of the more virulent agaves has been used as fish poison and arrow poison. Agaves and yuccas are used in Mexico to make soap.  More recently steroid drugs have been synthesized from extracts of several species in the family."

Bloom types fall into two categories - an unbranched spike (spicate) or branched (paniculate).  Some of the spicate produce small plantlets (clones) along the stalk that can be removed and planted.  At the moment, I have some of each type preparing to bloom in my yard.

Some of the Desert Museum's many agave specimens are also sending up the big shoots, including this one,

and will soon be in full bloom.

Here is a sampling of my various agaves

Don't confuse agaves with aloes.  Although similar in appearance, aloes are native to Africa and not related to agaves.  Aloes may bloom many times in their lifetime rather than dying after just one bloom.  

I leave you with two more species, Queen Victoria, and octopus agave.

Queen Victoria

The Queen Victoria is a small, slow-growing, very symmetrical plant, while the octopus grows rapidly in something of a free-form.  Part of the octopus agave's attraction, especially to gardeners, is the lack of barbs along the leaf margins or at the point.

Happy Spring, and happy gardening!


  1. I so enjoy the signs of spring when the agave stalk climbs upwards at measurable inches a day.

    I am curious to try to eat the heart of the agave. Even if only once. But will have to wait a few weeks, or at least until the snow melts.

  2. Love it! Agaves are wonderful, though pretty prickly too. I love the imprinted white outlines left on the leaves as they unfold, and there aren't many other desert sights that can compete with a small hillside covered in the shoots.
    It's beautiful both physically and in that more abstract circle of life kinda way.

  3. Is this related to the yucca? I should google this... but guess I'm lazy tonight. And those plants at Big Bend? Related? I'd love to visit the Desert Museum again one of these days... you sure provide plenty of pictures to whet the appetite... Nice!

  4. Agaves are so beautiful and structural in the garden. I love them although I don't like getting jabbed by them. They draw blood:) The syrup is used by many diabetic people as a substitute for sugar although it shouldn't be overdone. The stalk on the Agave is sad but one of the most beautiful things to behold. It's flowers are gorgeous. Some Tucsonans actually use the stalk for a Christmas tree....very cool looking. We had an Agave bloom and die. I collected the pups and today have one growing in our landscape. I gave the others away:) So many of them! Great plant for our landscape and desert!

  5. Wow!! Such a different perspective on plants and having a garden to my experience here in England. They are so strong and bold and the cycle of their living just amazes me...... thanks for such a wonderful posting.

  6. What an interesting and informative blog. I'd like to go out with a bang like that.

  7. Agaves are among my favorite succulents. I just arranged a new collage for the upcoming artfair:

  8. Great blog. Wish I could write like you.
    I have a stalk growing in my yard too.

  9. So interesting! I also am in love with the shapes and textures of succulents. The agave bloom is radiant!

  10. i would love to have agave in our yard too, i find them really very interesting and beautiful.

  11. Aren't they all just beautiful?? I spent some time in Kingsville, TX awhile back where they have planted agave all along the roads as part of their landscaping. Many were in bloom that year. Some were as tall as the surrounding buildings. I thought it such a shame that they would die, and have often wondered how the city coped with having to replace them all. Great post!! ~karen


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