Agaves add interest to desert gardens

An Agave is a tough, easy-care succulent that can add style to your garden, tolerate less than ideal conditions and grow just about anywhere.

Because of their striking form and general tolerance to cold, heat, sun, drought and poor or alkaline soils, agaves are some of the most useful plants for our desert landscape.

Agaves are members of the succulent family and are perennials. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, from the Americana (century plant) with a flower stock that will reach from 15 to 40 feet and can spread 10 feet in width, to the Agave utahensis, which is a clumping agave only about 1 foot tall and wide.

As accent plants

Some of these plants can overwhelm a small yard or garden, so check the plant's mature size before planting. Since many have thorns or spines, do not plant them near walkways or play areas, however, others are available without those sharp tips.

As a background plant or to fill a large vacant spot in your landscape, try:

1. Agave Americana (century plant). As mentioned, the century plant can spread to 10 feet in width, and its flower stock has been known to reach 40 feet, however, the average flower stock is only about 20 feet. This bold, sculptural plant has grayish blue-green leaf blades that reach 3 to 5 feet in length. This agave is a prolific producer of offsets. Leaf blades are well armed with saw-toothed edges and should be placed at least 6 feet away from frequented areas.

2. Agave Americana, variety marginata (variegated century plant). The marginata is a smaller variety of the century plant, with large rosettes 4- to 5-feet tall and 5- to 8-feet wide. It has narrow sword-like leaf blades, 3-feet long, which are gray-green with strong cream to yellow stripes down each margin. This agave looks great in a garden as contrast in color and form. It does need moderate water with occasional deep watering. Be careful not to over water during winter months.

3. Agave weberi (Weber's agave). This agave is slightly smaller, more refined and is a deeper blue-green with soft almost luminous leaves. With leaves 4-feet long by 8-inches wide that are armed only at the tip with a sharp point. This agave is noticeably sensitive to light and closes up when conditions are too hot or too bright but tolerates cold. It spawns offsets but needs some supplemental irrigation in very hot summer areas. Space 3 to 6 feet apart for massing.

4. Agave attenuate (fox tail agave). This agave masses 4- to 5-feet tall and wide with pale green leaves that emerge from a tight central spear and reach gracefully back to resemble a large open green flower. The flower stalk reaches 5 to 10 feet, and it reflexes back toward the ground before arching upwards again, thus giving it its common name, fox tail agave.

5. Agave vilmoriniana (octopus agave). This is a striking specimen planted in the ground. It seldom reaches more than 3 to 4 feet but spreads to 6-feet wide. It is blue-grey with sprawling, twisted form and leaf blades more slender than the century plant. Give it moderate water in summer and protect it from cold and reflective sun. In addition, it makes a good container plant, which would be beneficial as it is cold-sensitive.

As container plants

Many agaves are suitable for containers, so they are easily interspersed throughout your landscape. In addition, a container may be a good idea for some agaves, because certain varieties are frost-sensitive. Here is a list of a few agaves that are suitable for containers:

1. Agave Americana, variety medio-picta "Alba' (Tuxedo Agave). The tuxedo agave is a variety of the Century Plant, which grows 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide, with a bold greenish cream central stripe and blue-green margins.

2. Agave angustifoloa, variety marginata (variegated Caribbean agave). It has green leaves with marginal bands of bright white and a tight rosette of stiff sword-like blade leaves each up to 3 feet long and 2 inches wide.

3. Agave blue glow. The leaves of this agave are blue-green with red margins, which are attractively displayed when backlit. Unlike many agaves, it is a solitary rosette, which grows 1- to 2-feet high and wide. The blue glow is a hybrid between agave attenuate and agave ocahui, but looks nothing like either parent plant.

4. Agave bovicornuta (cow horn agave). This solitary growing agave has open rosettes with wide yellow-green to medium-green leaves that are widest in the middle. Leaf blades are edged with large reddish-brown teeth. Growing 2 to 3 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide, it takes this agave 12 years or more to produce a 16- to 23-feet tall branched flower stalk bearing 2-inch-long yellow and green flowers.

5. Agave colorata (mescal ceniza). This is a stunning plant when placed in front of a dark green background. This agave grows 4 feet tall and wide with blue-grey leaves that are short and broad, 1 to 2-1/2-feet long and 7 inches wide at the widest point. The flower stalk of the colorata can tower 10 feet tall and looks like a small leafless tree.

6. Agave 'cornelius' (Quasimodo agave or dwarf century plant). Only growing 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide, it forms a small rosette about 18 inches tall. The short, strongly variegated yellow to cream leaves have undulating margins. This is a slower growing variety and suckers to form small colonies.

7. Agave filifera. On this agave, dark green leaves have white filaments that detach from leaf margins and curl. It has a clumping, dense rosette up to 2 feet wide and 18 inches tall. It has a 6 feet tall spike carrying 2-inch flowers, greenish when young, turning brownish as they age. The name filifera means "carrying threads."

8. Agave geminiflora (pincushions agave). This is a short-stemmed plant that forms dense symmetrical rosettes of narrow dark green leaves. The leaves have slight red-brown tips. The long thin leaves are about 2 feet long and three-eights of an inch in diameter. The flower stalk is a narrow spike 15 to 18 feet tall that develops about 10 years after the plant starts growing. Flowers are yellow but greenish near the base; they are flushed with some red or purple. The geminiflora is sensitive to frost, so it would need to be protected during winter months.

9. Agave parryi, variety truncata (parry's agave). This is a compact rosette agave with broad, short, squared off blue-grey leaves with prominent reddish-brown teeth and terminal spines. It grows 2 to 3 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide. It's an infrequent bloomer, but its flower spike rises 10 to 20 feet, bearing orange buds that open yellow.

10. Agave victoruae regenae (Queen Victoria). This is a slow-growing, small, clump-forming agave that is only 1 foot tall and 1-1/2-feet wide. Its tight-fitting deep green leaves are edged with white along the margins, and end in a small terminal spike. When it flowers, which only happens with considerable age, the flower spike can reach 15 feet and carries densely packed reddish purple flowers. After blooming, this agave will die off and will have to be replaced - it does not offset.

I could go on and on, as there are more than 50 varieties of agaves. You can easily choose from giant to dwarf or from plain to exotic to incorporate in your landscape.

Before planting, make note of how large the particular variety will grow when it matures, and if it produces offsets or if it will die off after flowering. Agaves are interesting, low maintenance, low water, desert landscape plants. They can be over-watered, so water sparingly and do not plant them where water collects.