Common Names: Blue Agave, American Aloe, Maguey
Light: Full Sun/Part Shade
Height: 5′ – 7′
Spacing/Spread: 6′ – 11′
Color: Rarely blooms .
Interest: Year around evergreen foliage.
Texas Native: Yes, plant is Texas native.
Extra: WARNING, SHARP SPIKES.
Wildlife habitat: Provides food/shelter for bees, butterflies and birds.
Features: A wonderful iconic agave. Texas native that thrives in Full sun/Part shade. Xeriscape plant.
Austin Native Landscaping: “We consider the Century Plant as the king of agaves in Austin. It is very impressive when big, with its bold structure, and beautiful form. On the rare occasion when it finally blooms, it is a complete show stopper; The stalk bolts to the sky and the showy flowers grace the neighborhood. We love designing this Texas native in our xeriscape flowerbeds. It works beautiful as a single large specimen and also when planted amass with other agaves. Tough and particularity indestructible this Native beauty should be in anyone drought tolerant xeriscape landscape. Works particularly well when planted with ornamental grasses nearby. “
Family: Agavaceae (Pronounced – ah-gav-AY-see-ee)
Genus: Agave (Pronounced – a-GAH-vee)
Species: Americana (Pronounced – a-mer-ih-KAY-na)
One of the most distinctive and beautiful plants for the native gardener looking to expand their collection is the American Agave, Century Plant, or Maguey as it is called in Mexico. Famous for its massive vertical flower measuring upwards of 30 feet in height, the bloom can be unpredictable in its timing but when it occurs the sight is unforgettable. These towering flowers called inflorescences form a picturesque part of the landscape and offer a great resource for bees, butterflies, and small birds looking for nectar, as well as humans seeking an impressive addition to the native garden.
The rugged beauty of the flower and ease of care for which the plant is celebrated by landscapers are perhaps only overshadowed by the rich anthropologic history of the agavesin the Americas. American Agave has been utilized as a cornerstone resource by indigenous peoples from its point of origin in the highlands of Mexico to the deserts and unforgiving terrain of Arizona and south Texas for millennia. It’s use is limited only by human’s creativity, and agave species have been known to be employed in a number of ways includingthe production of alcoholic beverages, as a food source, a natural sweetener, medicine, sewing needles, fibers, forage for livestock, and as a defense against pests. Because of this unparalleled importance as a resource,these species have attained an important position in many parts of Mexican culture.Indeed, the Aztec and other central Mexican peoples were known to worship a fertility deity named Mayahuel who was often closely depicted with agave. In historic times, both Anglo-European and Hispanicsettlers throughout the region soon learned to depend on the numerous species ofagave as a reliable source of cattle forage, but perhaps more famously as the source for tequila. With a seemingly endless supply of uses for every part of the plant,to this day it remains utilized by modern peoplesin the same manner as our ancestors.
Botanically, the species Agave americana is classified as a monocotyledon, or a plant which when germinating produces a single small leaf from the seed called a cotyledon (mono = single, cotyledon = seed leaf). Perhaps more importantly in the proliferation of this species, at least for farmers and gardeners, is the growth of suckers or root sprouts. These vegetative growths originate below ground from acellular area found within the root of the plant called the meristem, and if left unchecked for years can form dense thickets of agave. Meristems are found in various locations throughout all species of plants and contain undifferentiated cellswhich have the ability to change into any organ or cell type that is required. The numerous types of meristems (root, shoot, and flower) are responsible for all new growth.The root sprouts form a new individual which is genetically identical to the parent plant and are a reason for the plant’s commercial success in the tequila industry. Instead of requiring further investment for nursery grown plants after the heart of the agave is harvested, the clever farmer will carefully collect the root sprouts and replant them when needed.The flower of the agave is classified as an inflorescence, meaning that multiple flowers or clusters are arranged around a single source. This flowering pattern is common in many species and is a useful way to identify plants. Some may find it of interest that the agave is neither considered a cactus nor an aloe, but rather is a member of the Agavaceae family. This broad family contains several hundred species of unique agaves found natively throughout the Americas, as well as the yucca. One notable member of the family is the Agave tequiliana, named for the potent liquor which is distilled from its heart sap.
Agave is well known for its sweet nectar, called aguamiel, which when allowed to ferment forms the traditional Mexican drink pulque. Aguamiel is extracted from the agave by peeling back the outer leaves and carving into the heart of the plant. The heart is then hollowed out and a space which allows the sap to build up is formed. The sweet nectar then collects and is extracted using a gourd as a siphon, usually daily, for a week or two and then left to ferment. Pulque is a delicious and nutritious low alcohol content beverage which isn’t well known outside of Mexico, but has been used traditionally by the various central Mexican cultures for thousands of years. Many delicious variations on pulque have been derived throughout the years, and today in Mexico City the drink is making a strong comeback among the younger generation who are curious about their cultural roots. The aforementioned Aztec goddess of fertility, Mayahuel, was often depicted holding chalices containing pulque and springing forth from anagave.Additionally, the thorns of the agave were used by central Mexican cultures for ritual bloodletting ceremoniesto appease the deities. The thorns are also utilized by humans as a means of environmental control. By planting large hedges of agave around coffee fields, Colombian farmers are able to prevent small mammals from browsing on the crops, while at the same time slowing down erosion.
Other traditional uses of interest abound. Decoctions of the roots and leaves are said to alleviate a number of ailments including bacterial infections, urinary issues, indigestion, insulin resistance, constipation, parasites, dysentery, flatulency and hormonal disorders.As afood source, the asparagus-like growth tips of the agave inflorescence serve nicely when barbequed in a traditional underground pit. Cattle also have a taste for the large leaves of the plant once the thorns have been removed, and vaqueros and cowboys alike have called upon the plant as an important ally in times of need when other forms of nutrition are unavailable to the herd. Fibers of the plant are to this day utilized throughout the world as a low density, high tenacity and high water absorbency alternative to commercial fiber. These fibers fall into the botanical cellular classification of sclerenchyma, one of the three main cell types found in all plant species. Sclerenchyma cells are dead,with thick cell walls comprised of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose, allowing them to remain rigid and take on larger physical constrains than the normal cell types.
Overall, the Century Plant is a great addition to the low maintenance, native landscape. Self-propagating and tough as nails, this plant will grace your property with beautiful blooms and require no water once well established. Deer resistant in nature due to the durable sclerenchyma fibers and sharp needles, only in years of extreme drought are deer known to attempt browsing on its leaves. Culturally, this plant is an important part of the identity of the region and would make a great conversation starter while lounging in the garden on a cool spring day, or sitting idly on the front porch enjoying a cold pulque or margarita in the hot summer weather.
Tom Montgomery is a native gardening enthusiast and plant ecologist from Austin. His enthusiasm and appreciation for all things botanical comes from years of experience ranging from landscaping and nursery care to plant physiology research and field ecology vegetation surveys. While not working in the field or lab, he enjoys mushroom hunting in the greenbelt, photography, home brewing and sharpening his Spanish language skills. For questions, comments, or feedback please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.