From a gardener’s perspective, the first thing that catches our eye each year as the car turns into the driveway is a massive specimen of Agave americana that grows at the edge of the property, by the street. 2012 saw a change in the giant succulent. It had turned into a tree, said one of the Fairegarden clan. There was a budded bloom spike that had shot skywards.
A little research revealed our fear to be correct, this Agave americana plant was going to bloom and then die. Inaccurately it is nicknamed the century plant by those believing the plant to bloom only after living for one hundred years, it is really more like twenty to thirty years before a bloom spike will shoot up.
Walking around the neighborhood, we found a specimen, shown above and in the photo before, that had died and was waiting to be dismantled by professionals, for the basal rosette is made up of leaves with large, thick and sharp points, a toothed margin and teeth curving downward. These leaves, growing as large as six feet across have tips that can pierce right to the bone. In addition, the sap can cause a painful rash.
Agave americana takes 10 years or so in warm regions and as much as 60 years in colder climates to send up its cyme. It dies after blooming (a condition called monocarpic), but produces offsets or “pups” throughout its life and these remain to continue the lineage. The pups had been removed from the one at our house. A few yards in the area had some of these pups mixed in their plantings, but none were in a location where a very wide and spiny plant would be welcome. They will have to be moved in the future.
How lucky then, for us to witness this phenomena of nature, for the blooms proceeded to open through the days we were there. Agave americana flowers when 10 or more years old, the exact triggering mechanism is not well understood.
These beach houses are three stories high, not including the attic/roof area. Our Agave was several feet taller than the surrounding houses. This shot was taken from the upper deck of our rental. We estimate the height at well over thirty feet.
Some facts about Agave americana:
Hardiness: low teens; cold damage is persistent and unattractive, USDA Zones 8b-11.
Exposure: full sun, reflected heat; better in part shade than other succulents
Water: natural rainfall; better on supplemental water, once per month in summer
Soil: tolerant, good drainage; okay in shallow soils
Propagation: seed, offsets
Maintenance: minimal; removal of lower leaves can be dangerous; removal of entire dead plant after blooming can be difficult due to large size
Range/Origin: Mexican highlands but cultivated worldwide as an ornamental plant. It has since naturalized in many regions and grows wild in Europe, South Africa, India, and Australia.
Agave americana are often used for fencing in Mexico and Central America. A dense hedge of these spiny succulents is impermeable to cattle and people. As an ornamental, century plant usually is grown in rock gardens, in cactus and succulent gardens, in Mediterranean-style landscapes, in borders, or as a specimen. It tends to dominate the landscape wherever it is grown. A. americana also is grown in containers where it stays much smaller than its outdoor brethren. Keep it in a cool, frost-free area in winter and put it out on the balcony or patio in summer. Water only in the summer.
The sap is used as a diuretic and a laxative. The juice of the leaves is applied to bruises and taken internally for indigestion, flatulence, constipation, jaundice and dysentery. Steroid hormone precursors are obtained from the leaves. The sap can cause a painful rash. (I would not recommend any internal or external medicinal uses of this plant.)
The flower stalk and heart of Agave americana are sweet and can be roasted and eaten. The seeds are ground into flour to make bread and to use as a thickener for soups. Pulque is a beer-like drink made from the fermented sap of century plant or (more commonly) the closely-related Agave salmiana. Tequila is distilled from the sap of blue agave (A. tequilana) and mescal is made by distilling fire-roasted agave. Mescal, with its distinctive smoky aroma, is often sold with a worm (actually the caterpillar of the agave moth) in the bottle. A company in California is marketing agave nectar, a sweetener made from the fruit of blue agave. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
This post is part of my friend Gail’s meme of Wildflower Wednesday.