Agave - The Century Plant

...and you don't have to wait 100 years to see it flower.
Steven Furness, 46 Preston Lane, Allerton Bywater, Castleford, West Yorkshire, England
Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002

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Agave americana veriegata: USA citizen with permanent European resident status.

Agave (pronounced 'Ag-a-vee'): succulent, exotic plants originating in the warmer regions of the western hemisphere, the Americas. Agave americana is capable of attaining great size with mature rosettes of some 3-4m across with individual leaves of 2.5m in length. Anyone who has seen these plants in central or southern Europe will openly admit that they are very striking, indeed spectacular. In this ideal climate they are capable of thrusting a large flower spike lOin high into the air. These flower spikes are similar in appearance to those produced on Phormiums to which they are related.
Widely distributed throughout southern Europe, A. americana has established itself in the wild on roadside verges, hillsides, and sometimes even beaches. They are most common in mild coastal areas, but can also be found on high ground where the winters are less favourable.

The genus to which they belong is Agavaceae, a large group of shrubs and herbs. Sisal, used in rope making, is produced from one species, A. sisaliana. The leaves of A. americana are very large, thick, fleshy and sword shaped, edged with sharp hooks and ending in a very sharp spike which is quite dangerous and best trimmed from plants in gardens. It is not recommended for use where children could come into contact with it.

The leaves grow in a rosette for about 25 years before the plant has enough stored energy to flower, and after this exciting event has taken place, the plant dies, only to be replaced by the many offsets produced during the life of the parent. It used to be thought that this process took 100 years, which earned it the common name of 'Century Plant'.

There are several varieties of Agave worth growing, but none is more spectacular than A. americana, the leaves of which are a grey-green colour with a yellow edge. Its natural habitat is the warm climate of Mexico, but it is adaptable and can endure temperatures as cold as those experienced in northern France, southern England, and Ireland. In this unnatural climate the plants may still reach a height of 1.5m.

In my cold northern England garden I have grown several plants outside, unprotected for at least 3 winters. The lowest temperature they have been exposed to is -11C (-12F) and as I am writing this (in mid-February) they are under a blanket of snow, and have been for four days.

They can be planted on an exposed, windy site as the wind has little effect on the thick, fleshy leaves, however, they must have a very free draining soil. This is best achieved by digging in large amounts of coarse sand and broken bricks to a ration of 50%, with light soil making up the balance. The addition of some farmyard manure is advisable to get the plant off to the best possible start. They should be sited in full sun, ideally, but not necessarily, with the protection of a south-facing wall.

Offsets can easily be detached and potted up into small pots again using free-draining soil, and grown on for a few years in an unheated greenhouse before being transferred to the garden.

Once planted outside, protection will only be required on the harshest of cold nights and then only a light covering of some kind will be necessary. I use an old bed sheet thrown over the plant, and held in place naturally by the sharp thorns!

Agave americana once established needs very little attention other than the tips of the leaves being removed if required, and the addition of some high nitrogen liquid fertilizer during the summer months. If these simple steps are taken, there is no better addition to 'the Exotic Garden' than one of these spectacular plants.

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