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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Agavaceae Part 1 – the Adoration

By Jim Bishop.

We have a lot of agaves in our garden. However, it took me a while to warm up to agaves. One of the first ones I grew was Agave victoriae-reginae. It looks like a giant artichoke with stiff leaves that have a sharp spine at the end of each. I fell in love with it for its symmetry. It is very slow growing and rarely offsets, so plants usually command a higher price than similarly sized agaves. They can take up to 30 years before they bloom, so in spite of the large initial investment, they can last a long time in the garden. I bought small ones whenever I found them and now have a potted collection of them by the front gate. I had one that I acquired over 25 years ago bloom this summer. Right now I’m waiting for the seed pods on the 20 foot tall bloom stalk to ripen. Hopefully, I’ll be able to collect some seed and grow many more plants.

Agave victoriae-reginae

Our current property had several Agave americanas on the back slope when we moved in and a number of them bloomed the first year we lived here. However, one was continually attacked by gophers that ate all the pups, but not the central plant. This may be the reason it grew so large, almost 10 feet across. When we were putting in steps on the hill, we had to make a sharp turn to go around this giant agave. Since you looked down into this agave while walking down the steps, a friend of mine named it the “Jaws-of-Death” garden. It bloomed a few years later sending up a giant asparagus-like spike that eventually reached the height of the living room window some 40 feet above it. The blooms drew many hummingbirds, orioles, and other birds each waiting their turn to get to the nectar. However, it would take almost another 3 years before it would decompose enough to be able to remove it from the garden.

We also had one Agave attenuata, the foxtail agave, growing on the property at the very bottom of the hill. It had some pups on its main growing stalk, so I rooted them and planted them in a small bed between the steps and the dry creek bed. However, it didn’t take long for them to get too big for the space and I dug them up and was able to plant a large hillside section with these. Over the years, we’ve had to move a few more that got too big. Only a few have ever bloomed. Unlike many other agaves they seem to be shunned by gophers.

Agave oviata

I love using agaves as a focal point in the garden. The thick leaves make a good contrast to leafy plants and grasses. And many have attractive leaves that are variegated, white, blue, or lined with a beautiful margin or small teeth that make them attention-getting specimens. Some of the larger ones have beautiful imprint or shadows from earlier leaves that have pressed against them.

Most of the other agaves we currently grow were acquired in the last 18 years as I slowly started collecting agaves that were of unusual form or interest. Most were grown in pots. Since many get large quickly, I usually buy one gallon size or smaller and up-pot them when they get too large for their container. I learned that growing them in pots also helps slow their growth. Still, many grow outgrow their pots and get transplanted into the garden. As the potted agaves grow in size, many of the potted agaves proved to be somewhat dangerous to have where people could bump into them. After Debra Lee Baldwin included in her book “Succulent Container Gardens” a photo of our garden wall with mostly potted succulents in front of a large tile talavera sun mural, I realized that this might be the perfect spot to arrange all the potted agaves. It is one of the hottest spots in the garden in the summer and somewhat out of the way so visitors can’t easily bump into the plants. Today there are about 35 different species of agaves and a few other plants in this area. Their forms nicely echo the sunrays in the tile mural.

Next month will be “The Aggravation”, Part 2 about growing agaves.

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