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  • johncagave

Which agave?

Updated: Jun 2

Agave -- as well as a few varieties of yucca I'm growing -- have long been known as durable, drought tolerant plants that can also withstand low temperatures. I'll be specializing in about a dozen types of agave and yucca, which I will profile below.

Durable does not mean eternal. These aren't oak trees. They'll grow anywhere from a few years to around 20 or 30, then flower and die. Many will procreate pups -- offsets -- that you can use to add to your landscape or replace agave once they die off. I'll be selling more mature plants, 2-3 years old, that are already well established. But there are no sure things in this line of work.

I grew up on a farm in Missouri and here's my motto: Everything that goes into the dirt is a gamble, plain and simple.

They will, however, be low maintenance plants needing only occasional fertilizing, if that. In a section below, I'll explain why you can ignore commercial fertilizers and save a signification amount of water in the process. This will hold true for all personal gardens, and if you get inspired, even small farms.

Just don't expect many people to listen.

Ovatifolia -- Whale's Tongue

This is one of my favorites.

Ovatifolia, or whale's tongue, is beautiful, drought tolerant and highly cold tolerant -- good down to at least 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit and reportedly thriving down to 0. In my border town in the Rio Grande Valley, the record low temperature is set at 14 degrees. And with climate change roiling the weather it looks like we can expect a hard freeze every few years down to the low 20s. That's a real threat.

Ovatifolia is native to northeast Mexico -- part of the Chihuahua Desert collection I am fond of -- originating down in the Sierra de Lampazos mountains where they find it at 3,700 to 7,000 feet. But it can range from zone 7 to zone 9, maybe 11, giving it really good range.

I've had a lot of success growing ovatifolia and I'm looking forward to seeing them mature. They get big -- 3 feet in height -- and can offer a dominant signature in a landscape project. I haven't tested them against the local javelina population behind my house along the Arroyo Colorado, but they clearly don't have many predators to worry about.

The drawback, from my perspective, is that this one doesn't do offsets. So if you want to grow a lot of it, you have to find the seeds. I'm working on it.


Havardiana -- Harvard's Agave

Here's another agave that can survive a range of temperatures. Like a lot of my agave, there's 10 weeks of each year I'm concerned about temporary hard freezes. Keep this one dry during the winter months, and you can let it go as far as 20 below without losing it. I'm going to bring a couple up to my place in Vermont to see just how well it does with cold.

Vermont is a great place to test cold. And Texas, of course, is where you go when they turn the temp up most months.

I'm still exploring this one, but they occasionally put out pups. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. I've got a few that are sparking offsets, and I'd like to know more about that.

They grow up to about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide in the 10-15 year cycle, so like whale's tongue, a beefy player in any landscape you may have in mind. I've heard tell of a West Texas variety they grow around the Davis Mountains, and I'll check it out once I get back to the region.


Agave Victoriae-Regina -- Queen Victoria

This is one of the smaller but very beautiful agaves that brings some real depth to landscapes -- provided you can get them to cooperate.

They grow about a foot tall and 2 feet wide and I've seen reports that it's cold hardy down to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Like the rest of the agave, it's highly drought tolerant but won't object to being watered once a month. Temper the sun with some afternoon shade.

Personally, I've found the Victoria a tough plant to grow. It's very slow, at the least but can also live for 40 years, a considerable stretch for agave.

I've also been playing with the related Ferdinand agave.


Americana -- Century Plant, Maguey

This was one of my first successes, and looking back, it's not hard to see why. The Americana is native to my part of Texas, thrives down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and shoots off offsets in a francy of procreation. Like the rest of my collection, drought only slows it down. Occasional watering in dry months make this a great addition to a xeriscape landscape and you will have plenty of additions to replace them once they complete the cycle.

I'd prefer a more super cold tolerant agave, particularly if you're in a marginal area that will experience more extremes of weather. But the pluses are many and the minuses few.

They picked up the name century plant because people thought they lasted a long, long time. But they don't. It will go the usual 10 to 30 years, flower and die. The stalk can grow more than 20 feet, making an impressive impact while it lasts.

This one's a giant. It will grow to a 6-10 foot spread, and swells up at a nice steady pace. If you start with a plant that's 2 years in, say, you'll have an impressive feature in your landscape from the get-go.

A lot of people like the variegated -- striped -- variety, adding significant color to your landscape. I've been growing a few and it's held up well, but the color change is a personal choice.

I've been exploring a variety of blues this past year. The blue Weber -- named after the botanist Franz Weber -- is used to make Tequila. Every time, and I mean every time, I mention growing agave, people ask me if I'm making Tequila. The popular identification with Tequila is remarkable and a tribute to the brand marketing that's been done. But Mexico trademarked Tequila years ago, limited production to a small area, and it can be vulnerable in colder climate, only good to around 25 degrees. It also, unusually, requires some watering. The ancient Mexicans discovered long ago that it was ideal for fermentation, but it makes it harder to grow over the first 7 years needed for harvesting.


Parryi -- Parry's Agave

Agave parryi, or Parry’s agave, sometimes called mescal agave. There’s also the smaller truncata and Huachuca varieties, which I’m still learning about. And the University of Arizona site mentions a more rare A. parryi var. couesii and I've seen some lengthy lists on varieties.

I love this one. It’s not only drought hardy — native to northern Mexico and the southwest US — it’s also reliably cold hardy down to -5 and has been known to go as low as -20. (I wouldn’t try that at home, though.)

The distinctive gray-green leaves are tipped with a brown needle. And after surviving, say, 20 to 30 years, it puts out a fast-growing flowering stalk and then dies.

It thrives in full sun but isn’t averse to occasional shade.

From my own personal experience, this agave has multiplied quickly once established, sending out pups for harvest. It's also considerably smaller than many of the trophies I've listed here, which makes for a nice mix when arranging a landscape project.

Don’t give it a lot of water -- every few weeks in the summer if there is no rain -- and leave it alone during the core winter months. I have it growing by my pool as an accent plant. The truncata variety puts out a lot of offsets, which can be cultivated into replacements or additions.

It's best to take the long view with agave.


Caribbean Agave

Caribbean agave is prolific, grows like a weed and competes with the Americana on putting out pups. You can start with one and have a batch on your hands in a year's time.


It's not cold hardy at all. This one evidently goes to 25 degrees Fahrenheit, max, and I've experienced a couple of freezes that have iced some of my small Caribbean. Once established, it can do better, but frankly I'm.not sure exactly what that means. I'll keep updating this post as I go along.

I keep struggling with Caribbean because it's so damn beautiful. It's one of the most consistently architectural agave I've seen. And it grows fast, gets 3 to 5 feet high and up to 6 feet wide.

These blades are real, they will poke you. And at the same time it's fragile, easily broken. If you can set it in one place and let it go, that's your best shot at winning with Caribbean. But don't test the cold boundaries.


Sotol -- Dasylirion Texanum

First off, this is not agave. It's also not yucca. But it is a remarkable ornamental plant with a rich history in Texas.

The long and slender evergreen leaves make for an interesting break with the mainstays of the agave and yucca worlds. It's highly drought tolerant, true to any plant that comes out of the Chihuahua desert. And it's cold hardy, known to survive short freezes.

The Indians learned how to make liquor out of this, harvesting the wild sotol, roasting the fruit and then fermenting the mix into a potent drink. I've heard that some enterprising people are making it into a new drink outside of Austin.

The dasylirion wheeleri -- or Desert Spoon -- is closely related and makes for a great landscaping feature as well. They're quite prominent in San Diego, which has a perfect temp for the whole slate of desert plants.

I spotted this one on one of my walks.




Rostrata -- Beaked Yucca

Spanish Dagger

Yucca Filifera

A nod to the future, which is upon us

The world we're living in is changing. Fast. Sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. A few years ago, my wife and I visited Big Bend and took a hike down Santa Elena Canyon. This is where the Rio Grande flows, when there's water. But it was dry as a bone. Where we live further down in the Rio Grande Valley, the water shortage has reached critical stages. Climate change is heating things up and drying things out, while raising chances of hurricanes and flooding and freezes.

This is our world, and there are small things we can do to make it better. I won't kid you, my carbon footprint is enormous. But agave offers a chance to do something strikingly attractive and sensible in conserving resources.

We have a choice right now. Future generations won't.

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