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Here’s a plant for the garden you’ll never, ever need to water

If you want a garden that you will never, ever need to water, consider agaves. There are more than a hundred agave species and varieties available to gardeners in Southern California, so you will have plenty of options if you decide to go all in with them.

The genus name Agave is derived from a Greek word meaning “noble,” and both the appearance and biology of agave species possess noble aspects. Many species, those that grow no more than a foot or two in height, have the appearance of royal crowns; one is named after a queen (Agave victoriae-reginae) and another is named after a king (Agave ferdinandi-regis). Along with maize and potatoes, agaves were a pillar of the economies of the Aztec and Mayan peoples. Agaves were utilized for food and drink, as well as in the manufacture of soap, textiles and clothing, red dye, needles, medicines, and fencing.

Agaves also display nobility in sacrificing themselves, after a decade or two of life, for the next generation as they throw all their energy into flowering and then die. Agave flowering is often a spectacular sight since the flower stalk grows one foot a day or more, reaching a height of 40 feet in some species. In the agave’s habitat, these flower stalks tower above all other plants in order to make it easy for bats to access and feed on the nectar in agave flowers. In the process of foraging for nectar, these bats – in the manner of nectar-seeking bees on fruit tree blossoms – pollinate agave flowers. Incidentally, the “century plant” (Agave americana) is a misnomer since the lifespan of this and all other agaves, on average, does not exceed 25 years and many of them flower and die at 10-15 years of age.

Those who grow blue agave (Agave tequilana) for its potent potable potential remove the flower stalk before it can develop in order to channel energy that would be used for making flowers and seeds into fattening up the pina, or heart of the plant, whose carbohydrate is transformed into tequila. Where flower stalks are allowed to grow and set seed, pinas do not enlarge nearly as much as when flower stalks are nipped in the bud. A full six to 12 months elapse between detaching the incipient flower and harvesting the pina. (Note: pina means “pineapple” and refers to the appearance of the harvested agave heart once leaves are stripped away.) 

There has been a significant increase in tequila farming in recent years due to the economic return on investment since inputs of water and fertilizer are minimal. The problem is that only one variety, Weber’s Blue, is legally permitted for authentic tequila distillation and because of what happens in a monoculture generally, when only one variety of a crop is planted, resistance to diseases and pests is undermined. Weber’s Blue agave, for example, is particularly susceptible to fungus and bacterial diseases as well as the devastating agave snout weevil that causes the complete collapse of the plant. Tequila aside, Agave tequilana is a symmetrical plant that makes a stunning stand-alone specimen as a garden accent or in a container. It is also useful for erosion control on slopes. If you are not interested in making tequila, choose from the blue agave Lemeno and Sunrise varieties, both of which are adorned with yellow leaf margins.

By the time they die, agaves will typically have produced a number of offspring at their base, so-called pups that grow from rhizomes of the mother plant. A minority of agave plants may or may not produce pups, but will sprout a hundred or more “mini-me” bulbils on their flower stalks. Bulbils are miniature versions of the mother plant, often with roots attached. Even bulbils without roots are easily propagated by dipping their bottoms in root hormone and planting them in small pots.

Agaves are famous for growing slowly, requiring little water, and possessing a shallow root system. These characteristics make them ideal not only for homeowners who want a garden of succulent sculptures that never need to be watered but for those who, with limited space, must grow everything in containers.

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