Although agaves are a bit “desert” for many Florida pseudo-tropical applications, everything has its place, and we do have two “native” species, which probably came here with Native Americans ever-so-long ago, but that’s for another day. They arrived again as the sisal agave, thanks to Mexico-Florida horto-pioneer Henry Perrine (1797-1840) whose plant nursery long ago left Indian Key an agave pincushion to this day.

Spineless agave (A. attenuata)

American Agave (A. americana, blue form)

To my eye, agaves in our local context look best in containers or in formal-ish architectural settings, in rocky circumstances, and uncrowded; they look worst mixed with lush tropical-ambience vegetation. They come in all sizes, from little Agave geminiflora in a flower pot to imposing blue “American Agave” with many species in between, in dark greens, light greens, and variegated patterns,  with straight leaves, with kinky leaves, with big scary teeth, little prickly teeth, or the somewhat-shade-tolerant “spineless agave,” which with time can grow a trunk. Some have spreading rhizomes. The so-called “false agave” Furcraea foetida, looks like an agave but is not nearly as succulent.

Agave geminiflora

Agaves and people have been mixing it up for a long time. Agave fibers have been valuable cordage for thousands of years, the waxy coverings were ancient “wax paper,” the fermented juice of the Mexican blue agave (not the blue species we have here) is tequila, and now we fancy agave nectar as a sweetener.

They have their hazards. That spine at the leaf tip can put out an eye, or impale the human kneecap. Maybe even worse, the sap is nasty irritating, as many persons who have pruned agaves have learned the hard way. (As Eric Burdon said, “and God I know I’m one.”) The ardent juice in the eye reportedly can be blinding.

On the bright side, they’re so nice and easy, if drained and not over-watered; after all agaves are desert plants at heart. The name “century plant” comes from the observation agaves grow a long time, then flower once and die. Not really a century…in my experience, in a horticultural setting maybe 1/10th of a century or sooner. At death-flowering time some make basal pups, and most make pups in their tall flowering spike.

For a survival-of-the-fittest gardener, if the hazards are too hazardous, agaves are about as easy as plants come.




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George Rogers

About George Rogers

George Rogers is the Chair of the Horticulture Program at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.