Agave plants (Agave spp.) generally are succulents with large leaves that end in spiny tips. There's a lot of variety in the agave genus. Large, stiff specimens can grow to 10 feet or more in height and width. And there are the small, dish-sized agaves and a few agave species with soft leaves and no spines. 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.
It's typically best to plant this slow-growing succulent in the spring or early fall. When agave matures after several years or even several decades, a tall flower stalk often grows out of the plant's center. The flowers are bell-shaped and long-lasting in shades of white, yellow, and green. For most agave species, the plant dies once the flowers produce berry seed pods.
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. 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.
|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 plants 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
Agaves are grown for their dramatic foliage. It's monocarpic, meaning it will bloom only once in its lifetime. One large agave is all you need to make a sculptural focal point in the garden. Make sure there is plenty of room to walk around it so no one accidentally brushes against the spiny 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 indoors in containers.
Agaves thrive on neglect. The key is to make sure they have well-draining soil and ample sunlight. When grown in an environment they like, they need very little supplemental care from you, although monitor their growth. Agave spreads rapidly and can quickly take over an entire garden and become difficult to remove.
To stop agave plants from spreading, pull out pups or baby offshoots as soon as you see them. They come out easily with a hand shovel when small. You can replant pups elsewhere. To remove well-established plants, you will need a full-sized shovel to dig deeper into the ground. Some mature agave plants can have a deep rhizome rooting system, potentially going several feet.
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 will tolerate any well-draining soil, but their preference is rocky or sandy soil. Poor soil drainage can lead to root rot, which can kill 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 you are first 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
The majority of agave plants can't tolerate frost and only can grow as far north as USDA growing zones 8 or 9. But there are some, such as Agave parryi, that 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
The range in size and appearance in the agave species is expansive, including:
- Agave attenuata: This is a popular spineless variety, also 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 give it a hairy look. 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, being careful not to cut any roots growing from the pup itself.
- 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.
- Plant the pup in a small container with drainage holes, using succulent potting mix. 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. In a few weeks, the pup should be ready for transplanting outside if you wish.
How to Grow Agave From Seed
It’s typically easy to grow agaves from seed. Fill a shallow container that has drainage holes with a seed-starting mix. Then, simply scatter the agave seeds on top. Note whether your agave species requires light for its seeds to germinate. If so, do not cover the seeds. Lightly moisten the growing medium, and then cover the container with plastic wrap. Put the container in a spot that stays above 70 degrees Fahrenheit and has bright, indirect sunlight. You should have seedlings in a few weeks, at which point you should remove the plastic wrap.
Potting and Repotting 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 your agave plant every couple of years as it matures. The best time to do so 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.
When grown outside of their hardiness zones, agaves must be kept indoors for the winter. Bring them in before any threat of frost in the weather forecast. Keep the container by your brightest window, and make sure it's not in the path of any 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 the plant to collapse. Unfortunately, you probably won’t notice this until it’s too late to save the plant. So instead remove the plant to avoid the pests spreading to any other agaves you might have.
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. Make sure you are allowing 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 make sure 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.
Saraiva A, Carrascosa C, Ramos F, Raheem D, Raposo A. Agave syrup: chemical analysis and nutritional profile, applications in the food industry and health impacts. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(12):7022, doi: 10.3390/ijerph19127022.
Schalau, Jeff. "Agave Snout Weevils." University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County. Arizona.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2021.