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Growing Succulents in the Desert Column

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

Agave zebra and Agave pelona by Mark Dimmitt

Photos by Mark Dimmitt unless noted

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

I’m treating these two very different but equally beautiful agaves in the same article because they grow together in the same habitat (Figure 1) and have the same culture. They are endemic to the Sierra del Viejo, a limestone mountain southwest of Caborca, Sonora. This range is in the Central Gulf Coast division of the Sonoran Desert. The climate is hot and very arid. All of these traits make these agaves well adapted to the climate and often caliche-laden soils of southern Arizona.

The similarities stop there. Agave zebra (Figure 2) is in the subgenus Agave, the one with paniculate inflorescences. Agave pelona (Figure 3) is in the subgenus Littaea and has spicate inflorescences. The former species forms offsets, while the latter is always a solitary rosette. The leaves of A. zebra are broad, gracefully recurved and channeled, and have beautiful gray banding and very toothy leaf margins that leave bud imprints on adjacent leaves. Agave pelona has many narrow, straight, toothless leaves; they’re dark green with a smooth white margin.

Both species grow slowly, so they will grace your garden for many years before they flower and die. Agave zebra flowers are bat-pollinated and are a dull brownish white. Although the flowering rosette dies, offsets will keep the clone going. But the final act of Agave pelona’s solitary rosette is a spectacle. The spike shoots up to about 15 feet tall, densely packed with flowers of a strange brownish-red hue (Figure 4). My plants took 20 years from seed to mature, and that was with regular watering.

These agaves are only sporadically available, especially A. pelona because it can be propagated only from seed. Each one has look-alike species that can be substituted. Some clones of the variable Agave colorata (Figure 5) closely resemble A. zebra. It’s a tropical species, but it tolerates our frost and nearly full desert sun. Agave ocahui var. ocahui (Figure 6) looks almost exactly like A. pelona. Most clones are non-offsetting; its inflorescence is a more ordinary yellow.


List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns