Agave plants are perhaps best known for tequila, which is made from the steamed, mashed, fermented and distilled hearts of the blue agave. If you've ever had a run in with an agave plant's sharp terminal spike or ragged, toothy leaf margin, you probably remember it all too well. In fact, one of agave's most common uses in the landscape is for privacy or basically as mass plantings of thorny unpleasant defense plants. However, grown as specimen plant, different agave plants can add height, shape or texture to rock gardens and xeriscape beds.
Different Agave Plants
Generally hardy in U.S. zones 8-11, agave plants are native to southern parts of the North America, Central America, West Indies and northern parts of South America. They thrive in intense heat and sun. Oftentimes confused with cactus because of their sharp teeth and spikes, agave plants are actually desert succulents. Most varieties are evergreen with very little ability to handle frost. Many common varieties of agave will naturalize by forming clumps of new rosettes. This makes them ideal in mass plantings for privacy and protection. Some agave varieties however, will only produce new rosettes when the main plant is nearing the end of its life. Many types of agave have ‘century plant' in their common name. This is because of how long it takes for an agave plant to bloom. The long-coveted blooms don't take an actual century to form, but it can take more than 7 years for different agave plants to flower. These blooms form on tall spikes and are usually lantern shaped, much like yucca blooms. Some agave varieties can produce flower spikes 20 feet (6 m.) tall that can rip the whole plant out of the ground if toppled over by high winds.
Commonly Grown Agaves in Gardens
When choosing different types of agave for the landscape, first, you'll want to consider their texture and carefully place varieties with sharp spines and spikes away from high traffic areas. You'll also want to consider the size agave you can accommodate. Many agave plants get very large. Agave plants do not tolerate being moved once they are established and they can’t really be pruned back. Make sure to select the right agave type for the site. Below are some common agave plant varieties for the landscape:
- American century plant (Agave americana) – 5-7 feet (1.5 to 2 m.) tall and wide. Blue-green, wide leaves with moderately toothed leaf margins and a long, black terminal spike at the tip of each leaf. Fast growing in full sun to part shade. Many hybrids of this agave have been created, including variegated forms. Can tolerate some light frost. Plants will produce rosettes with age.
- Century plant (Agave angustifolia) – 4 foot (1.2 m.) tall and 6 foot (1.8 m.) wide with gray-green foliage and sharp teeth on margins, and a long, black tip spike. Will begin to naturalize as it ages. Full sun and some tolerance to frost.
- Blue agave (Agave tequilana) – 4-5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m.) tall and wide. Long, narrow blue-green foliage with moderately toothed margins and a long, sharp brown to black terminal spike. Very little frost tolerance. Full sun.
- Whale's Tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) – 3-5 feet (.91 to 1.5 m.) tall and wide. Gray-green foliage with small teeth on margins and a large black tip spike. Can grow in full sun to part shade. Some frost tolerance.
- Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae) – 1 ½ feet (.45 m.) tall and wide. Small rounded rosettes of tight gray-green leaves with small teeth on margins and a brown-black tip spike. Full sun. Note: These plants are endangered and protected in some regions.
- Thread-leaf agave (Agave filifera) – 2 feet (.60 m.) tall and wide. Narrow green leaves with fine white threads on leaf margins. Full sun with very little frost tolerance.
- Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) – 3-4 feet (.91 to 1.2 m.) tall. Green leaves with no teeth or terminal spike. Rosettes form on small trunk, giving this agave a palm-like appearance. No tolerance of frost. Full sun to part shade.
- Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) – 4 feet (1.2 m.) tall and 6 feet (1.8 m.) wide. Long curled leaves make this agave seem to have octopus tentacles. No frost tolerance. Full sun to part shade.
- Shaw's agave (Agave shawii) – 2-3 feet (.60-.91 m.) tall and wide, green leaves with red toothy margins and a red-black terminal spike. Full sun. No frost tolerance. Quick to form clumps.
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