This article has been checked for horticultural accuracy by Oliver Parsons.
Agave plants are succulents that belong to the Asparagaceae family. They are native to Mexico and the southwestern regions of the United States but are now grown worldwide due to their unique and striking appearance. Agaves are perennial, which means they live for several years. Unlike most perennials, agaves flower only once before dying.
Some common names for agave plants include century plant, maguey, and sisal. In Mexican culture, agaves are considered a symbol of purity, strength, and health. Some varieties were used by the Aztecs to create a fermented drink called pulque, which was a precursor to tequila, which is now made from the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana).
There are over 250 different species of agave plant, each with its own unique characteristics. They vary in size from small varieties that can be grown in pots, to large specimen pieces that form the bulk of a gravel garden display. Some species are better suited for indoor growing, while others may be grown outside in the UK.
While agave plants are beautiful and add character to gardens and indoor spaces, it's important to note that they can be toxic to both pets and people. The presence of certain compounds in agave plants may cause symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhoea if ingested, and can potentially irritate a dog's mouth, skin, tongue, and throat, resulting in swelling, breathing difficulties and stomach discomfort. Agave will cause more discomfort than harm to your dog, but if your dog is particularly prone to chewing plant material, you may want to consider positioning agave plants out of their reach.
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How to grow agave plants
Grow agaves in free-draining soil or compost in full sun, and water only when the soil is completely dry.
Where to grow agaves
Agave plants can be grown both indoors or outdoors, depending on the species, but they all thrive in warm, sunny environments, free-draining soil and with minimal watering (variegated agaves do best in partial shade as it enhances their colouration and markings). While they are native to desert regions, it's possible to grow some species outdoors in the UK, but they must either be brought indoors in autumn or protected over winter to prevent damage from the combination of excess moisture and freezing temperatures. Many agaves can also be grown in pots, making them a popular choice for indoor gardening or moving between the garden and conservatory with the seasons. When positioning your agaves, be mindful of their sharp spines, which can harm passers-by or pets.
Agaves can grow well with other succulent plants or cacti, creating a visually appealing desert landscape.
How to plant agave plants
When planting an agave plant, it's essential to choose a location with full sun exposure. Agaves need free-draining soil – typically composed of 50 per cent multi-purpose compost and 50 per cent horticultural grit or perlite – to ensure optimal growth.
Plant your agave at a slight angle to prevent water-logging of the plant's crown and facilitate proper drainage of rainwater, which is particularly crucial when the plant is grown outdoors without the ability to regulate watering.
Placing rocks or large stones in the planting hole and around the base of the plant can both aid drainage and inhibit weed growth, as agaves can be challenging to weed around due to their spines.
How to care for agaves
Agave plants require minimal care and are relatively easy to maintain. Water the plant only when the soil is completely dry, as overwatering can lead to root rot and other issues. Stop watering in winter.
When container-grown agaves become pot bound, repot them into a slightly larger container, and remove any dead or dying older leaves and roots. This is a good opportunity to transplant any offshoots (pups) that may have emerged around the parent plant. Remember to wash your hands after handling agaves, as their sap can cause irritation.
In autumn, protect outdoor-grown plants from winter wet with a cloche or some clear plastic sheet suspended above the plant on a frame. Fleece under this can give extra protection against low temperatures. Move pot-grown plants indoors. Throughout winter, ensure the plant is receiving enough sunlight, which will promote healthy growth in spring.
Using a half-strength liquid fertiliser on container-grown plants every few weeks will help to promote robust growth throughout the summer season, but take care not to over-feed or overwater.
How to prune agave plants
Agave plants do not require regular pruning, but occasionally dead or damaged leaves may need to be removed. To prune an agave plant, use a clean, sharp pair of shears, pruning scissors or a knife to cut the dead or damaged leaves at the base of the plant. It's best to prune the plant during the summer months when it is actively growing.
Wear gloves and protect your skin from the sharp spines that are present on some species of agave plant. You may consider snipping off the spines with secateurs. This will not damage the plant, but do make sure you don't snip the leaf edges.
How to propagate agaves
Propagate agave plants by removing the offsets (pups) that grow around the base of the plant. If propagating from a potted agave, wait until the pup is about a third of the size of the parent plant. Use a clean, sharp knife. Allow the cut to dry and callus over before planting the pup in an equal-parts mix of compost and grit or perlite. Water the plant lightly.
Pests and diseases
Agave plants are relatively resistant to pests and diseases but some issues may arise. Regularly inspect your plants for any signs of pest or disease damage, such as yellowing leaves, distorted growth, or presence of pests, and take appropriate measures to control the issues.
Signs and solutions include:
- Woolly, white insects clinging to plants growing indoors or in a greenhouse - these are mealybugs. Remove by hand or using tweezers if the infestation is very small. If the plant is in a greenhouse, consider buying in biological controls in the form of the ladybird Cryptolaemus montrouzieri or suitable parasitic wasps.
- Tiny brown barnacle-like dots on plants, which suck sap and weaken plants – these are scale insects. Pick them off by hand or encourage natural predators into your garden. Also consider applying the nematode Steinernema feltiae.
- Yellowing and wilting of leaves before they turn brown – this is due to overwatering and leads to root rot and plant death. If spotted in time, allow the compost to fully dry out before watering again. If there are signs of root rot, remove the plant from its pot, wash off all compost and cut off any dead roots. Repot into a new pot with fresh free-draining compost and don’t water until new growth appears.
Advice on buying agave plants
- When buying an agave, it's important to choose a healthy plant that's free from pests and diseases Look for plants with plump, healthy leaves and avoid plants with brown or yellow leaves or signs of damage
- When selecting an agave plant, consider the size, growth rate, and environmental requirements of the species. Some species are better suited for indoor growing, while others require more space and are best suited for outdoor cultivation
- When purchasing an agave plant online, read the product description carefully and choose a reputable supplier. It's also important to check the delivery options and charges, as agaves can be heavy and bulky to transport.
Where to buy agave plants online
Agave varieties to grow
- Agave americana (century plant) – a large species best suited for outdoor cultivation in warm climates. Height x Spread: 1.5m x 1.5m
- Agave victoriae-reginae (Queen Victoria agave) – a small, slow-growing species that is popular as a house plant. It has dark green leaves with white markings. H x S: 50cm x 50cm
- Agave parryi (Parry's agave) – a medium-sized species with bluish-grey leaves that are arranged in a rosette shape. Suitable for outdoor cultivation in the UK. H x S: 60cm x 90cm
- Agave attenuata (fox tail agave) – a large, fast-growing species that is popular as a house plant. It has soft, pliable leaves with no spines. H x S: 1.5m x 2.4m
- Agave potatorum (butterfly agave) – a small hardy species with blue-green leaves that are arranged in a spiral pattern. Suitable for outdoor cultivation in the UK. H x S: 30cm x 30cm
- Agave titanota (chalk agave) – medium-sized species with particularly interesting, curved spines along the leaf margin at leaf tip. Suitable for outdoor cultivation in the UK. H x S: 60cm x 60cm
- Agave desmettiana (smooth agave) – a large species with blue-green leaves that have no spines. It's a popular house plant and can also be grown outdoors in warm climates. H x S: 1m x 1.2m
- Agave lophantha (striped agave) – a small species with a distinctive central stripe to its foliage. H x S: 60cm x 60cm