Agave plants are succulents with large leaves that end in pointy tips. Agaves have a lot of variety, with over 250 species in the agave genus. Large, stiff specimens can grow to 10 feet or more in height and width, and smaller species can be dish-sized. A few agave species have soft leaves and no spines. Agave grows best in rocky, sandy, well-drained soil in full sun. Fertilizer can encourage agave to bloom, which is not recommended because the plant only blooms once, then dies.
|Common Name||Agave, century plant|
|Plant Type||Perennial, succulent|
|Mature Size||1–20 ft. tall, 1–10 ft. wide (depends on variety)|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Bloom Time||Varies; most only bloom once in their lifetime|
|Flower Color||Green, white, yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||5–11, USA|
|Native Area||North America, Central America, South America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people, toxic to pets|
Watch Now: How to Grow Agave Indoors
What Is Agave Used for?
Certain types of agave, like blue agave (Agave azul) and green maguey (Agave salmiana), are valued as the primary ingredient in the distilled liquors tequila and mezcal.
The agave plant is also good for making syrup, a common sugar alternative much lower on the glycemic index than sugar or honey. Light agave has a neutral flavor; amber has a slight caramel flavor; and dark has a strong caramel flavor like molasses or golden syrup.
Four parts of the agave plant are processed and cooked and can be eaten, including the flowers, the leaves, the basal rosettes, and the sap. Note that raw agave sap is toxic to people and pets.
Here are the main care requirements for growing an agave plant:
- Needs well-draining soil, like rocky, sandy, or cactus soil.
- Requires full sun, with at least six hours of light daily.
- Plant in the spring or early fall.
- Prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil.
- Does not grow well in humidity.
- Hold off on fertilizer.
- Water only when the soil is dry.
- Grows well in containers indoors.
Agave americana is native to the U.S. and Central America but is considered invasive in Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, and Malta. Since it spreads rapidly and can quickly take over an entire garden, you can stop agave plants from spreading by pulling out pups or baby offshoots as soon as you see them. They come out easily with a hand shovel when small. To remove well-established plants, use a full-sized shovel to dig out the deep rhizome rooting system, potentially going several feet deep.
Agave plants prefer a spot with full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days. But they can tolerate a little shade. The hotter the climate is, the more shade they can handle.
Agave plants tolerate any well-draining soil but prefer rocky or sandy soil. Poor soil drainage can lead to root rot, killing a plant. Moreover, they like a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH.
Mature agave plants are very drought tolerant. You generally only need to water them if you've had a long stretch without rainfall and the soil is completely dry. However, when establishing a plant, water it every four or five days for the first month. Then, water once a week, and gradually space watering to every other week, depending on rainfall.
Temperature and Humidity
Most agave plants can't tolerate frost and can only grow as far north as USDA growing zones 8 or 9. But some, such as Agave parryi, are reliably perennial to zone 5. Moreover, most agaves prefer a climate with low humidity. High humidity can lead to crown rot on the plant.
Feeding typically isn't necessary for agave plants. Feeding encourages flowering, which you don't want to happen too soon because most agave plants die after flowering.
Types of Agave
Agave foliage tends toward a blue-green in hardier varieties and a gray-green in warm-climate types. Some are variegated with gold or white markings. The range in size and appearance is expansive, including:
- Agave americana: Also called century plant because it was once thought it took 100 years for the plant to flower; it usually blooms after 10 to 25 years, dying after blooming.
- Agave attenuata: This is a popular spineless variety known as the foxtail or dragon-tree agave. It grows around 4 to 5 feet tall and a bit wider.
- Agave parviflora: Its leaves have white markings and curling filaments that look hairy. It only gets about 6 inches tall and blooms in six to eight years with green flowers.
- Agave tequilana azul: Weber's blue agave is used to make tequila, but it is also a very attractive garden plant, reaching upward of 6 feet tall and flowering in six to eight years with yellow blooms.
- Agave victoria-reginae: As this plant matures, its broad leaves cup inward, forming a dome. It reaches a height of about a foot, and cream flowers appear in 20 to 30 years.
Mature agave plants produce pups, or tiny new plants, around their base. They can be propagated from these pups. Not only is this an inexpensive way to get new plants, but it also prevents the mature plant from becoming overcrowded by young plants. The pups generally can be propagated at any time, but it’s best to wait until they’re a few inches in diameter. Here’s how:
- Loosen the soil around the pup to find the root connecting it to the parent plant. Cut that root with a sharp trowel, be careful not to cut any roots growing from the pup.
- Gently dig up the pup, leaving as many of its roots as possible intact.
- Place the pup in a shaded, ventilated area for a few days, so the root you cut can form a callus.
- Using succulent potting mix, plant the pup in a small container with drainage holes. Lightly moisten the soil, and place the container in a bright, warm spot.
- Continue to water when the top inch of soil dries out, but don’t saturate the soil. The pup should be ready for transplanting outside in a few weeks if you wish.
How to Grow Agave From Seed
It’s typically easy to grow agaves from seed. Seedlings should develop in a few weeks after sowing.
- Fill a shallow container that has drainage holes with a seed-starting mix.
- Scatter the agave seeds on top. (Read up on the particular species to discover whether your agave species requires light for its seeds to germinate. If so, do not cover the seeds.)
- Lightly moisten the growing medium.
- Cover the container with plastic wrap.
- Put the container in a spot above 70 degrees Fahrenheit with bright, indirect sunlight.
- Remove the plastic wrap when you notice seedlings emerge.
- If in the correct zone for growing the plant year-round outside, gradually acclimate the plant to outdoor living a few hours at a time, increasing the duration outdoors each day before transplanting the seedling outside.
Potting and Transplanting Agave
As with many succulent plants, many agave species have shallow roots. So you can grow them in a shallow container because they don't need much soil. Just make sure the container is sturdy and can anchor the weight of the plant. An unglazed clay pot is ideal because it will allow excess soil moisture to evaporate through its walls. Also, make sure the container has ample drainage holes.
Use a well-draining potting mix made for succulents. Water the container about once a week in the summer and monthly in the winter. Wait until the soil is dry a few inches down before watering.
Plan to repot or transplant your agave plant every few years as it matures. The best time is in the spring or summer. Use a slightly larger container and fresh potting mix. Once it's mature, you can leave the plant in the same container, but plan to refresh the potting mix every couple of years.
Agaves must be kept indoors for the winter when grown outside their hardiness zones. Bring them in before any threat of frost in the weather forecast. Keep the container by your brightest window, and ensure it's not in the path of cold drafts. Water sparingly throughout the winter. A good rule of thumb is to water just enough to keep the leaves plump.
Agaves generally have very few problems with pests and diseases. However, the agave snout weevil can burrow into a plant’s center to lay its eggs, causing it to collapse. Unfortunately, you probably won’t notice this until it’s too late to save the plant. So, remove the plant to avoid the pests spreading to any other agaves you might have.
How to Get Agave to Bloom
Agaves are grown for their dramatic foliage. It's monocarpic, meaning it will bloom only once in its lifetime. For most agave species, the plant dies once the flowers produce berry seed pods. Giving agave fertilizer can prompt it to bloom prematurely.
After the 10 to 20 years it takes for the agave to reach maturity, it will bloom in the spring or summer months.
How Long Does an Agave Bloom?
The blooming period is a three- to four-month process, beginning with a giant central floral stalk that leads to flowers and the release of seeds. The tall flower stalk can grow 15 to 35 feet tall. Each of the flowers on the flowering stem lasts about a month. After the main plant blooms, it dies, so there is no chance of reblooming.
What Do Agave Flowers Look and Smell Like?
A large, spike-like stem will emerge from the center of the plant. Some varieties grow flowers all over the stalk, while others have flowers that appear at the ends of “branches” that sprout from the sides of the stem. The flowers are bell-shaped and long-lasting in white, yellow, and green shades.
Agave flowers are full of sugary sweet nectar, used as a sugar substitute. The blooms have a sweet smell similar to honey or vanilla, and its stronger at night, attracting moths and bats.
Caring for Agave After It Blooms
As soon as the agave plant flowers and creates its seed pods, the parent agave plant dies. The large central stock will eventually flop over, so if you have it planted in a garden near other plants, you will want to remove the giant central stalk with a handsaw so it won't damage your other plants.
Some agave plants develop bulbils or baby plants all along the main central stock. You can twist off a few and replant them to propagate new agave plants. Otherwise, plan to dig up the agave plant and its dead rhizome to make space for new plantings.
Common Problems With Agave
When grown in the conditions they like, agaves rarely have problems. But some environmental issues can cause a plant to struggle.
Drooping leaves can be a sign of the agave snout weevil. But they also can be due to incorrect watering. Overwatering can cause the roots to rot. And consequently, the leaves won't be able to get moisture and nutrients from the soil, so they end up drooping. Ensure you allow sufficient time between waterings for the top few inches of soil to dry out.
Leaves Turning Yellow
Overwatering also is a common culprit for yellowing leaves on agave plants. Yellow leaves also can be due to insufficient sunlight, which causes the plant to lose its vibrancy. Monitor your plant throughout the day to ensure it's not being shaded for long stretches. If so, consider moving it to a sunnier spot.
Is agave easy to care for?
When grown in the conditions they like, agave plant care is easy. They are hardy and require little maintenance.
How fast does agave grow?
Agave plants are generally slow-growing and can take years to mature.
How often should agave be watered?
Agaves have high drought tolerance. They generally only need watering biweekly to monthly, depending on rainfall and sun conditions.
Is agave the same as aloe vera?
Agave and aloe look alike, live in dry, hot climates, and are drought-tolerant succulents. However, they come from different plant families and opposite parts of the world. Aloe natively comes from Africa, and agave comes from the Americas. Agaves are larger and have sharp spines on their leaves, while aloe has serrated leaves that are not sharp.
How are agave plants used in landscaping?
One large agave is all you need to make a sculptural focal point in the garden. Ensure there is plenty of room to walk around it so no one accidentally brushes against the pointy tips. Agaves also can make a nice border grouping and provide textural contrast with other plants. Pairing them with ornamental grasses can soften their hard edges. Plus, small agave species are excellent for growing in container gardens.
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University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Toxic Plants (by Common Name). Web.
Agave americana. Global Invasive Species Database.
Schalau, Jeff. "Agave Snout Weevils." University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County. Arizona.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2021.