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  Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society

Growing Succulents in the Desert Column

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

"Plant Agaves During Cool Weather" by Mark Dimmitt

Pictures by Mark Dimmitt unless otherwise noted
This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.

Most agaves are not desert plants. The great majority of species grow in higher, cooler habitats (Figure 1). When planted in the hot desert, they grow mainly during the mild weather of spring and fall. They are quiescent during peak summer heat and during the cold of winter. The milder weather is also the best time to select and plant out agaves in desert climates. They need time to establish and be ready for the summer heat.

Mark Sitter of B and B Cactus Nursery learned this from some of his snowbird customers who have had problems. They bought and planted agaves in their landscapes in late April, just before leaving for the summer without intention to water them. Under these harsh conditions, even nearly indestructible agaves will fail to thrive, and may even die. Even with watering, summer-planted agaves tend to languish until fall. Agaves in the landscape should be watered mainly during spring and fall. It is okay to withhold water during summer heat and winter cold, when most won't grow much anyway. Many species will fold their leaves vertically, reducing heat load and water loss (Figure 2). This is normal, not something to be concerned about.

Before the 1990s, few agaves were available except Agave americana. It gave the genus a bad reputation among gardeners; it’s much too large for most residential landscapes. In the past couple of decades numerous smaller and more attractive agaves have become widely available in succulent nurseries. Standard nurseries carry several of the most popular types. Huachuca agave (Figure 1) is one of them. Its relative A. parryi truncata (artichoke agave) is even more beautiful (Figure 3). It is being mass-propagated by tissue cultured and is becoming common in Southwestern landscapes. The very compact rosettes grow to about two feet across, and slowly form large colonies. They rarely flower.

Agave victoriae-reginae (Queen Victoria agave, Figure 4) is a gorgeous plant with very rigid leaves marked with strong white lines. The regular form grows to about two feet across, and the compact form only one foot in about ten years. Agave ‘Blue Glow’ is stunning when the red edges of the blue leaves are backlit by late afternoon sun (Figure 5). It was introduced by Edward Hummel, and is probably a hybrid between Agave attenuata and A. ocahui. The non-offsetting rosettes grow to about two feet across.

The most recent agave introduction is A. ovatifolia (whale-tongue agave, Figure 6). Although it had been in cultivation decades earlier, Gregg Starr rediscovered it in habitat and named the species in 2002. The very broad leaves form a striking rosette four to six feet across and less tall in only five years; it does not offset. Agave bovicornuta (cowhorn agave, Figure 7) is a non-offsetting type with rich green leaves and yellow to cinnamon reddish, hooked marginal teeth that resemble the horns on a cow. Plants can get 2-3 feet tall by 3-4 feet across. Place it under filtered light for best appearance. It can be damaged in cold Tucson winters.

Don’t plant agaves for their flowers. While those of some species are very showy (Figure 8), it takes 10 to 20 years in cultivation for a rosette to mature. Then it dies. Landscape architect Carol Shuler recommends planting penstemons with agaves, because they have the same watering needs. The penstemons provide splashes of color in the spring. The rest of the year the penstemons are inconspicuous, and the agaves beautifully fill the garden space. Greg Starr of Starr Nursery also recommends planting other perennials and small desert adapted shrubs along with agaves, including Baileya multiradiata, Calliandra eriophylla, Chrysactinia mexicana, Ericameria laricifolia, Glandularia gooddingii, Salvia greggii, and Tetraneuris acaulis.