Uh-oh. My agave’s blooming.

– Posted in: Succulents

Agave potatorum

I’m going to miss my toothy Agave potatorum, shown here beginning to form a bloom spike. When an agave flowers, it is not a happy event, unless you’ve been waiting forever to collect its offspring. Agaves are monocarpic, meaning they die after flowering.

Agave americana

Agave americana, the most common agave in the Southwest, has the common name “century plant” because it supposedly takes a century to bloom. Actually, it’s 15 to 20 years…sooner, if you pamper it with rich soil and ample water. (Moral: If you grow Agave americana, be mean to it.)

Agave americana trunk

Agave americana‘s stalk is about the diameter of a telephone pole and nearly as tall. The drooping, lifeless leaves of this bloomed-out specimen have been trimmed to a pineapple-like trunk. At its base grow pups of the mother plant. Agaves are nothing if not determined to reproduce.

Agave angustifolia

Notice the size of the bloom stalk  of Agave angustifolia ‘Variegata’ relative to that of the mother plant.

New plants detail

When the spike emerges from the center of the agave rosette, it resembles an asparagus spear. This branches and produces masses of nectar-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees. Agave nectar, now sold in many supermarkets, is a popular natural sweetener. It’s similar to honey but dissolves more readily in cold liquid and is not as strongly flavored.

The blossoms on the bloom spike form bulbous little plants. Each branch cluster holds dozens. As the mother agave dies, it can no longer support its towering stalk.  When this topples, it efficiently propells the offspring to the earth.

Agave desmettiana in bloom

Agave desmettiana bloom stalks turn from green to red as they mature. Most of the agaves in this clump decided to bloom at once.

Agave tequilana in bloom

This is Agave tequilana—the agave tequila is made from. In Mexico’s commercial agave fields, the plants are harvested at about 7 or 8 years of age, when they are full of sugar in preparation for flowering.

Attenuata blooms Old Town

The bloom spikes of most species of Agave are treelike, but those of Agave attenuata are unbranched.

Agave attenuata in bloom

Blossoms open from the bottom up. The appearance of its long, curved stalk earned Agave attenuata the common name “foxtail agave.”

Agave potatorum spike

I’m often asked if you can stop an agave from blooming by severing the stalk. Unfortunately, no. The same chemical changes that cause it to flower also kill the plant. This is the same plant shown in the top photo. The stalk, now about 5 feet tall, has grown a foot a week and is as yet unbranched.  I’m going to sit back and enjoy the show…while deciding what to do with a thousand baby plants.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified.  www.debraleebaldwin.com 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified. Debra is a regular contributor to Sunset and other publications, and her own half-acre garden near San Diego has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Debra specializes in showing how to use architectural, waterwise and easy-care succulents in a wide variety of appealing and creative applications. www.debraleebaldwin.com.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Lisa at Greenbow August 7, 2009, 6:53 am

I am always amazed at those tall blooms. I bet you will miss this pretty plant however you will have all those babies.

Hi, Lisa — I hope I eventually harvest some babies, but the bloom stalk just keeps getting taller and has yet to branch. This could take a while! Debra

Susan aka Miss R August 7, 2009, 7:04 am

Debra–Thank you for such an informative and beautiful post. There are very few that I can grow in NJ gardens so the ones that I have or plant for clients live in pots for a season and that’s it–unless there’s some greenhouse space availalbe. I always admire them when I see them in warmer climates–living sculpture in the garden.

Hi, Susan — Plant breeders (like Euro-American Propagators, who have the Proven Winners line) are introducing wonderful small agaves and aloes that are ideally suited for pot culture. There are so many varieties. Here in the Southwest, even savvy gardeners tend to think agaves are century plants (big, hulking Agave americana) and don’t realize the marvelous array of miniatures that are available. My Agave potatorum, which maxed out at about 2 feet in diameter, is one example. Debra

Janet August 7, 2009, 7:39 am

We don’t have many agave here in Virginia so this was very interesting to see all the different flower stalks.

Hi, Janet — Thanks! They’re hard to shoot because it’s challenging to get such a tall vertical element into a photo. Debra

Dave August 7, 2009, 8:21 am

That Agave attenuata is really neat. The blooms are definitely a mixed blessing. I don’t have any here although they probably would grow fine in TN.

Hi, Dave. It depends. Agaves don’t like a lot of rainfall—they’re dry-climate plants. Many will tolerate some frost (down to the mid-20s) and some go much lower. They’re generally fine in high heat and hot sun, though they like some afternoon shade in desert gardens. Alas, Agave attenuata is the most frost-tender agave that I know of. Mine collapsed like wet Kleenix during the freeze of ’07 (it got down to 19 degrees), and even in milder years (no lower than 30 degrees) any out in the open get spots on their leaves and tip burn. Debra

Carol August 7, 2009, 9:25 am

I enjoyed this post very much and wanted you to know. Those are amazing plants! So interesting architecturally and different from what goes here in New England… though I do have Yucca growing … out of character I know for our landscape… and this member of the Agave family does not seem to die after blooming. Yours is an incredible garden… are these plants from your collection minus the one by the ocean? That is a wonderful photo… what a setting for such a bloom arching over the vast blue water! They are all stunning photos. It is good that the Agave plants live so long before blooming … sad that they give their life giving birth… wow ….really so many offspring? You could start a nursery. Beautiful post!

Thank you, Carol, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! None of these agaves are (or were) in my garden except for the small one in the first and last photos. When it started forming a bloom spike, I realized the topic would make a good photo essay, so I went back through my photo files and pulled examples from gardens I’ve visited. You’re right—yuccas, which are related to agaves, don’t bloom after flowering. Actually, not that many succulents do. Furcraeas, aeoniums and sempervivums come to mind. Debra

Pam/Digging August 7, 2009, 10:43 am

An agave bloom is truly cause for a little mourning and for celebration. They go out with a bang! I never tire of seeing the two-story bloom stalks shooting skyward on agaves around Austin. In my own garden, I haven’t had any long enough to bloom yet.

Hi, Pam — I’m sure not looking forward to when my large agaves turn arborial. I’ve got a half dozen Volkswagen-sized Agave americana that are key elements in my garden. A friend has a party whenever one of his big agaves blooms. It’s like a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy. If there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well celebrate. Debra

Michelle D. August 7, 2009, 12:15 pm

enjoyable photo essay Debra.

I wish that more of my clients would open their eyes to the beauty of Agaves.
Many balk that they do not have pretty little pink flowers and that the spines might impale their dog or cat.

sheesh.
well at least I get to plant them in my small little patch.

Michelle

Hi, Michelle — I think as gardeners get more sophisticated in terms of design, they gain an appreciation for the symmetry and sculptural qualities of agaves. After all, foliage is so important. As for the spines, I recommend snipping off the last quarter inch or so, to blunt them. And of course, don’t plant agaves near walkways, dog runs or play areas! Debra

misti August 7, 2009, 12:23 pm

Loved this post! Agave are like roses and orchids, I would love to have a collection of them!

And people do, Misti. If you get a chance, go to a Cactus and Succulent Society of America show. The specimens you’ll see are amazing. Btw, the largest CSSA show is this month, August 15-16, 9 am to 5 pm at the Los Angeles Arboretum, 301 N Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, CA. I’ll be there on Saturday, taking photos, and would love to connect with any GGWers! Debra

Loree / danger garden August 7, 2009, 3:21 pm

Beautiful post with wonderful photos Debra! I thought since I grow most of my agaves in pots that I would never face the bloom spike. However I recently saw a photo of one blooming in a small pot. I guess it can happen anywhere.

Thanks, Loree. I suspect that agaves in pots don’t bloom as quickly as those in the ground. Root restriction may stress the plant in a good way. I’d love to know if that’s the case. Maybe I’ll ask some of the pros at the Cactus & Succulent Society show next week. Debra

Les August 7, 2009, 7:07 pm

I think it is sad, but none-the-less wonderful when these plants bloom. Several years ago one of the hardier species was flowering at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens and it became a media event, luring non-gardeners into a world they would not have otherwised experienced.

Hi, Les — It was probably Agave parryi, which resembles a large (4-feet diameter) gray artichoke. There was one in Portland in a garden on a busy street that people admired, and then mourned. Debra

Diane August 7, 2009, 10:42 pm

I just went to a talk about cultivated agaves the other day. Apparently some cultures in AZ/NM grew them as crop plants but the tradition was lost about 500 years ago. Some of the sites, with descendant agaves, still can be found. When mature, the “heart” of the agave, the crown minus leaves and roots, would be harvested and set into a pit to roast for hours or days. Eating and sharing the agave heart was a major community event, and agave was one of the few sweet foods available in the desert. It was so interesting to hear about a harvest that a village had to wait 20 years for! Very cool plants, visually and historically.

Diane, that is fascinating! It’s hard to imagine a world without honey, cane sugar, syrup or other sweeteners, which are so prevalent in what we eat today. I’ll bet they were healthier for it, too. Debra

Jane August 8, 2009, 12:36 am

What a wonderful post! I loved the overview of the different agaves and their particular bloom styles. The attenuata spike is lovely, but they are all striking. I’m just getting acquainted with agaves and have four (including a new little Americana pup) here in Portland, OR. I’m sure it will be many years before I have the experience, but I can quite imagine the bittersweet in the advent of an agave bloom.

Thank you, Jane. When it comes to Agave americana, when it blooms, it’s not only bittersweet, it’s a calamity—like having a big tree in your yard suddenly die. It’s the easiest plant in the world to grow, though, and magnificent while it lasts. Debra

Susie August 8, 2009, 1:06 am

That Agave potatorum is beautiful, what a lovely shot. I also love the Agave desmettiana, so interesting & rare that they are all blooming at the same time. Hope you have room for all your babies!

Hi, Susie — I like the wickedly long and tapered tips of Agave potatorum. It helps me to remember the species name by imagining little potatoes skewered on the tips. Agave desmettiana is notorious for blooming out after being in the ground only a few years. Those in the photo are probably the same age—pups from the same litter, so to speak—so they all reached maturity at the same time. Debra

Nicole August 8, 2009, 3:24 pm

My agave sisalinia is sending out a bloomstalk now-its about 30 feet and the flower buds aren’t open yet! I love the potatorum, I just bought one in California.

Hi, Nicole — Agaves have fibrous leaves, and yours is notable in that it’s the one that sisal is made from. Wow, 30 feet?! Fortunately by the time agave flower spikes are ready to fall over, they’ve dried out and don’t weigh much. Debra

jodi (bloomingwriter) August 8, 2009, 7:55 pm

These are absolutely magnificent, Debra. Obviously they aren’t a plant for outdoors here in Nova Scotia, but I can vicariously enjoy them through photo-posts like this. Thanks for sharing, (and my condolences on the blooming and mortality of your agave…)

Hi, Jodi — Some agaves you might be able to grow: Agave parryi (hardy to minus 20 degrees), Agave gentrii (5 degrees), Agave neomexicana (minus 20), and Agave havardiana (minus 10). Debra

Diana August 10, 2009, 10:07 pm

Loved the agave lesson, Debra. We have 5 stunning agaves in bloom in our Austin, Texas neighborhood and I watch them every day to chart their progress. They are just amazing.

Hi, Diana — Wow, five?? They must be littermates. ;+)

Victoria August 11, 2009, 8:21 pm

Hi, Debra, I saw Pam’s review of your book on her blog, and I immediately ordered it from Amazon. It arrived this morning and I ripped the packaging off while the postman was still standing there, which he found very amusing. I’m really looking forward to sitting down and reading it properly – preferably outside in some sunshine.

LOL! I hope Designing with Succulents lives up to your expectations, Victoria. How very nice of you to tell me this and also everyone who reads the post and who may want more info about gardening with agaves. Your own garden is absolutely lovely btw, and you have the cutest little cat! Debra

B. Herman October 9, 2009, 9:10 pm

I have had a century plant out back for over 14 years now and it is huge. It is probably 8 feet tall and ten feet wide. I always bend the pointed ends in and leave curled ends where I walk by. It has many smaller plants around it and they are too becoming much bigger now. I was going to remove all the small ones, but an arborist advised me that it may disturb the roots of the large one. Well, much to my joy, today, 10/9/09, I discovered an asparagus-like stem in the middle starting to emerge! I was thrilled! I read it grows very fast and it is in a perfect spot where it can grow as tall as it likes, next to some 40 to 50-feet pine trees. So sky’s the limit! But I took some beginning pics now and will continue to watch its growth. How exciting! By the way, I live in Winter Park, Florida. It is mid-October and still in the ’90s here, so don’t think the cold [probably in January/February] weather will affect the blooms at all. Now I’m glad I kept all the babies and will make an agave garden in the back corner of my property so they all can bloom!

If you enjoy entertaining, an agave bloom is a great excuse for a party. After all, you and your guests aren’t likely to see such an event again (in your garden) for at least another 14 years. Debra

Lisa October 14, 2009, 11:47 pm

Hi Debra – I have really enjoyed your book and I’ve already preordered your next book from Amazon. :) I love the fact that many of your pictures were taken right here in San Diego. I’ve really come to appreciate succulents and I’m now in the process of planting my southwest facing back yard in Scripps Ranch with them. It gets over 100 for a few days each year, but I didn’t loose anything in the 2007 freeze. Do you think that I could safely grow Agave attenuata (my favorite) without sun damage? Also, I’m looking for a way to add color so what about Kanchoe blossifeldiana? There isn’t much shade. Any suggestions you may have for my project would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing your talent and ideas.

Hi, Lisa—In inland San Diego gardens, Agave attenuata does best with some light shade to protect it from extreme sun in summer, especially in the afternoon. It’s also the most frost tender agave, so planting it beneath a lacy tree will protect it from cold. The key is to know your garden’s microclimates—it might do really well for you, for example, planted against a wall of your house. Kalanchoe blossfeldiana should be OK for you in full sun and is excellent for adding floral color, but consider it an annual. It blooms itself to death (but it’s also supremely easy to replace, as it’s sold in most supermarkets, in fact, I’ve given it the common name “supermarket kalanchoe.”) If it’s color you’re after, aloes have spectacular blooms in midwinter, and the leaves of some will redden in full sun. I have a chapter in Designing with Succulents just on color—the leaves of so many succulents are colorful. A favorite is blue Senecio Mandraliscae. Check out http://www.debraleebaldwin.com for more ideas. Debra

Michael November 3, 2009, 10:17 pm

Hi, Bought and moved into a new house in a Bayside area of Brisbane 9 months ago. Six of 10 agave attenuata groups on the property flowered with 10 to 12 foot stalks (incredible!!) about 4 months ago. They are now all curved over and have shed the bulk of their dried flower stems. I think they still look pretty neat but have decided to cut them off. Each ‘head’ is amongst a large group of adjoining agave plants and sit on a 2-3 foot trunk, some with small new pups sprouting off them. Is there a recommended place to saw off the trunk in this situation?? Or does it just not matter? Also as the trunks are 4-5 inches in diameter is there any need to put a treatment on the sawn part? Any suggestions or advice would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Hi, Michael — It doesn’t matter where you saw off the spent rosettes, and you don’t need to treat the raw area. I think sawn-off trunks are unsightly, so I’d cut them so you can’t see them. Evaluate the clump in terms of the aesthetics of your garden. If pups conceal a sawn-off trunk, then perhaps you want to leave it as is and let the pups continue to enlarge. You also can remove any pups and replant them—they’ll root easily. Debra

Chris November 27, 2009, 8:01 pm

Wonderful post!

Being a So Cal native, Agaves are all too familiar, but none the less always spectacular to see bloom.

An Agave in our front yard recently finished it’s once in a lifetime event. I finally had to cut it down, it was about 25 feet tall, and was reaching halfway across the street and leaning lower and lower each day. It took about a year to complete it’s bloom cycle, so it was enjoyed by all for quite some time.

Much to my amazement, only days after cutting it, another Agave in my front yard, (different species) is beginning to bloom! The stalk has already grown about three feet in just a week!

This one is beneath a majestic 55 year old Black Pine with a Torrey shape, so it will be beautifully framed and supported as it reaches skyward!

I’m sure the chances of getting two blooms in as many years is quite slim, so we are definitely celebrating around here!

Hi, Chris — I’m so glad you’re enjoying your agaves in bloom! Every time I see one, I marvel. Debra

al December 5, 2009, 7:09 pm

Hi Debra,
I live in the Los Angeles area and have an agave attenuata Blue Boy that is currently producing a flower stalk (about 4 feet now). It was planted around 1994 or just prior. Also have a large clump of regular agave attenuata nearby that has never bloomed; planted early 1980′s. Have several offsets from the Blue Boy. Assume that original plant will die after blooming. Correct??? Thanks….

Yes, your attenuatas will die after blooming. But they produce a lot of offsets so it’s no great loss. The flower stalks of Agave attenuata are goofy looking, tall and curved like question marks. They’re unbranched and lined with blossoms, which makes them look fuzzy from a distance. Hence the common name, foxtail agave. Debra

Nicole December 10, 2009, 11:56 pm

I have 2 agaves in my front yard that are growing stalks right now. And I just want to be sure what you are telling me. Even if I cut off the stalk right now, the plants are still going to die?

Yep. Debra

Robert Handen December 14, 2009, 5:02 pm

I have a beautiful stalk on my agave attenuata. I will enjoy the show but will be sorry to lose her. She must have been about five of six years old when I planted her five years ago. She is surrounded with some pups. Time to take some photos. I’m in San Diego. Thanks for the info.

Mo Curit April 10, 2010, 2:23 pm

One of the reasons I bought my home in Scottsdale, AZ was because of the beautiful sculpture like agave plants out front. Now I have two of those magnificent plants about to commit suicide and I am distraught. Is there nothing I can do to save the plant or should I just sit back and enjoy the show?

Bibliomaniac April 27, 2010, 6:34 pm

Thanks for the great article! We just moved to Southern New Mexico a few years ago and promptly planted several agave in our yard–just love them!

Our agave have several “pups”–is it okay to transplant these babies to other parts of our yard? I would hate to harm the mother plant in any way. Thanks!

dan May 18, 2010, 1:08 pm

I have a beautiful blooming agave in my yard in Miami, Florida, I think the tequiliana version as shown aboe. Mine is about 22 feet tall. Wish i could figure out how to post a photo. Is it too late to get tequila from the plant base? Any advice on how best to propagate pups is much appreciated . Thanks.

Karen November 6, 2013, 6:38 am

The agave stalk can be harvested and then placed in a heavy pot to by displayed as a piece of yard art. They dry and last for a very long time. Smaller ones can be placed in the house or porch as a very unique hat/scarf rack as well.We recently harvested one from our neighbors home (with their permission, of course) that is approximately 30 feet tall and have it in the center island of our driveway- it’s silhouette is striking!

Diane November 6, 2013, 7:10 am

Very informative!

ann November 6, 2013, 7:39 am

Never have had agave. Around these parts, aloe take place but will look for some today.
North Dakota winters prohibit out door growth so have t winter over inside.

Jeannine November 6, 2013, 8:04 am

Isn’t nature amazing? I think that is worthy of a party too!

Joe Kittsmiller November 6, 2013, 8:42 am

Hi, I loved the agave article.i live in Miami &love these plants. I just went to bush gardens & they had some nice huge 6fters. I have 3 blue silver surfer agaves. 2 bought med size in pot planted & are doing great. I also bought 2 online & basically got ripped off and some little pups arrived. I planted 1 inground 1 in a pot. These have been the same size(small) in both. There in rocky soil lots of fl sun&i water them& neglect them. How can I get them to grow. If this lets me send photos I’ll put some great agaves. Also do you know where I can purchase a blue whale agave, I’m having a hard time finding one down here in Miami. Any info is greatly appreciated thanks.

Donna Jones November 6, 2013, 8:47 am

Thanks Debra! Since reading your book and articles I have a whole new appreciation for succulents…and a new hobby. Thank you for all your informative and beautiful articles! Donna Jones

Linda Jones November 6, 2013, 9:17 am

This is bizarre on so many levels but thanks for the education.

Robín November 6, 2013, 11:38 am

I like this post, from Spain where it is know 17 h 30, because i agree with you to consider the beauty of succulents as a great one and because, as i am a beginner in matter of plants i learned 4 new things in just 28 lines. That´s an informative efficiency of 4/28 = 1/7 = 14 %, a very high rate compared with the average informative learning in The Internet; when searching for unknown matters with Google; which is about 1 % in my own experience. (I must read generally about 100 lines to get 1 good new information; though i usually do it in a diagonal mode fast reading not 100 % efficient). And the photographs are also good and goodly informative. Sorry for my clumsy English; i am a Spaniard .

Cindy Hewatt November 6, 2013, 11:59 pm

I enjoyed these beautiful photos and such an informative post about Agave very much, and thank you!

Madeline November 8, 2013, 5:14 pm

I love agaves! They are so unique structurally with great colors and I’ve found them to be pretty resilient.

Karen November 29, 2013, 2:25 pm

I enjoyed this article very much. I have witnessed a number of agave americana’s; but about a month ago I witnessed a agave tequiliana started to bloom. The blooms are gone and the base is beginning to deteriorate. The stalk has started to lean slightly. The plant is in my neighbors yard and I told her what the plant was. I’m waiting to watch the final process take place. I’ve never heard of the term “monocarpic”. Thanks for your informative website.