Agave (2020)

Agaves are hardy desert plants. These were seen at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Photo by Bob Williams.

By Bob Williams (July 2020)

I am relaxing on the deck of the cabin, but late for submitting my article. I’m sipping on a cool, refreshing beverage, pondering on a topic. I look at my drink, and a light bulb goes off.

The blue agave is a great gift to mankind. It grows large and requires little care. Upon reaching the correct size, cut the plant off at the roots, roast it, chop it up and add some water and yeast. Put this mixture into a vat and ferment it, and you get tequila.

This plant is easy to grow and has a wide variety of uses: medical, as a food source and as a source of a hemplike fiber. Its many uses were documented in 1843 by William Prescott in his book History of the Conquest of Mexico and the Conquest of Peru.

In the book, he describes the agave this way: “But the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the table-land. As we have already noticed, its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured; its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which the natives, to this day, are extremely fond; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!”

A plant so important deserves some recognition.

According to the Plant List, there are over 230 accepted species for the genus Agave. Most of the plants are found in the dry, arid regions of the Western Hemisphere. However, species are also found in India and the Mediterranean.

These agave hybrids from the Williams’ collection will remain small. Left: A. verschaffelte, right: A. abopdiflosi “Tufts.” Photos by Bob Williams.

These plants come in a wide range of sizes. Agavae decipiens is a Florida native, growing on hummocks in the Everglades and other marshy areas. It is treelike, with a trunk up to 13 feet tall. Leaves as long as 78 inches have been recorded. The flower stalks can reach 6 feet tall. The smallest is the Agave parviflora. This plant only grows to 10 inches across and 8 inches tall.

Agaves are very hardy. Growing mostly in hot and dry areas, they have developed a shallow root system. This allows them to capture water from rain, condensation and dew. They have a waxy coating on the leaves. This prevents evaporation, allowing them to survive long periods of drought.

Besides the uses noted above, these plants have many medicinal uses. According to WebMd, agave has been taken by mouth for constipation, indigestion, flatulence, jaundice, cancer and diarrhea; to promote labor; and to promote urine production. Also, pulque, a beverage prepared from agave, has been taken by mouth by breast-feeding women to increase milk production. Agave has also been applied to the skin to treat bruises and promote hair growth.

When an agave begins to flower, sap rushes to the base of the young flower stalk. At this time, the stalks are harvested, and agave nectar (also called agave syrup) is created. This sweetener is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, and can be added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. The agave sweetener is marketed as natural and diabetic-friendly, without spiking blood sugar levels. The baked, dried heads are also boiled and made into an edible paste, eaten whole or made into soup. The leaves are eaten boiled, and the young, tender flowering stalks and shoots are roasted and eaten, as well.

Like any succulent, agaves need to be planted in a well-draining soil mix. Because they are shallow-rooted, they don’t need much soil, and you can grow them in any size container. Repot container-grown plants every couple of years with new soil. Agaves can produce sucker roots. If the pot is overly crowded with roots, go ahead and cut the roots back to size. Give the plant a week or so to readjust before you water it again.

Water about once a week in the summer and monthly in the winter. Wait until the surface of the soil is dry before watering. In extremely dry conditions, your agave may need more frequent watering, but agaves are very forgiving. Agaves can take bright direct sunlight, but having them near a brick or concrete wall that receives direct sunlight can harm the plants.

Agaves can be grown from seed. It takes a very long time for a plant to flower, but almost every species will produce a large number of pups. This is the most common way to propagate your plant. As impressive as the flowers are, you actually don’t want them to bloom, because almost all species of agave die after flowering. The pups are produced from runners in the soil, except for Agave vilmoriniana, which produces hundreds of bulbils on the flower stem. When repotting an agave, wear gloves. Remember, the tips of many species were used as sewing needles.

Agaves have very few problems. One of them is the agave snout weevil, which will burrow into the plant’s center to lay its eggs, causing the plant to collapse. Unfortunately, you probably won’t notice this until it’s too late. Remove the plant and check for any remaining grubs.

Most agave plants are not frost-hardy, but some, like Agave parryi, are reliably perennial in USDA Hardiness Zone 5. However, the majority of them are only hardy in Zones 8 and up. There are many hybrids that are winter-hardy in our area. Every year at our member-only sale, we order a wide variety of winter-hardy agaves.

There are many Agave varieties readily available for purchase. You can buy cold-hardy plants or plants for your indoor collection. Most are reasonably priced. When looking for you next plant, an agave would be one to consider.


eFloras Flora of North America
The Spruce – Growing and Caring for Agave Plants –
World of Succulents – How to Grow and Care for Agave –