Agave is a succulent plant easily recognizable for its large, pointy, bluish-green leaves. It grows naturally in arid climates, such as the deserts of Mexico, where residents have used it for centuries. The plant can also be cultivated indoors and in gardens. It can take up to 100 years to bloom and it only flowers once in a lifespan. Agave is popular for the fluid contained within its fat stalks. Although toxic while raw, this fluid is fermented and transformed into tequila and sweeteners.
Agave requires a growing medium that drains well and does not retain excess moisture. This means outdoor growers should plant agave on a raised bed rather than a recessed spot where water can accumulate. Any container will suit the plant as long as it can dry out evenly about once or twice a week. Unglazed clay is the best material because for agave plants because it allows water to evaporate quickly.
These plants thrive in the sandy soil native to desert climates. In the garden, growers can mix coarse sand and compost into the soil to provide a well-draining environment for the succulent. For potted agave plants, combine gravel and pumice with sterilized potting soil to recreate desert soil. Avoid soil mixes that contain peat moss, because its acidity and tendency to retain moisture are both detrimental to agave plants.
Agave tends to grow best when exposed to abundant sunlight in a hot environment. It can tolerate partial shade but reaches its optimal state when it receives six or more hours of unfiltered light daily. The hotter the climate, the more shade the agave plant can tolerate. The plant can be kept inside for several months when temperatures drop below freezing. Because it grows so slowly, it will maintain its shape and size throughout the cold season. This allows people in cooler regions to cultivate the plant.
In its natural environment, the agave receives little water and dries out quickly. Potted agave plants require more water than outdoor plants. Newly planted agave should be watered every five days for the first couple of months. After its roots have developed and adjusted to the container, the plant only requires water twice a month.
Snout weevils are the biggest threat to the agave plant. These brownish-black beetles lay eggs at the base of the plants in spring. The eggs hatch into larvae, which eat the plant's fleshy core. The initial hole drilled by the female beetle causes the plant to slowly decay until it collapses and dies. Preventative broad-spectrum insecticides may stop weevil infestations, but discarding the infested plant is usually the best route.
Common signs of an infected agave plant include dark spots and lesions. The leaves of a sick plant may turn black and fall off. The plant is also susceptible to root and crown rot when exposed to freezing temperatures. Agave is much more vulnerable to disease when grown indoors or in a container than when it is grown outside in the soil. Anti-fungal agents can help curb small infections, but, again, discarding of the sick plant is often the best course of action.
Agave is one of the few plants that gardeners don't need to worry about fertilizing. Feeding a mature agave may encourage it to flower, which consequently reduces its lifespan to a single season. Young agave plants and seedlings may benefit from weekly applications of fertilizer. Growers suggest a soluble plant food with an even ratio of phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen.
Agave can be propagated with several techniques common to most succulents. Young plants, also known as pups, may form at the base of some species. Separate a pup from the mother plant with a sharp knife and replant. During the flowering period, some species of agave produce tiny plants called bulbils, which can be treated in a similar fashion to pups. Rhizomes can be cut into pieces and propagated by leaving cuttings on the top of fresh soil. Each cutting must have at least one dormant bud. Water the cuttings every week until they begin to grow. This process may take several months.
Agave is mostly cultivated for tequila, but it has countless other uses. Much of the plant is edible once cooked. Before it flowers, the stalks can be roasted or boiled and have a rich caramel flavor. The flowers can be boiled and scrambled with eggs. The nectar contained in its fat leaves can be turned into a low glycemic-index sweetener. Growers should note that the plant becomes more tasty and nutritious as it ages.
The agave family contains more than 200 species. Agave plants range from small strains that can be grown in containers to large plants that may stretch up to 20 feet tall. Blue agave is used for tequila production and grown in large commercial plantations in Mexico. Agave Americana is the most common species, cultivated for its sap, which is turned into pulque, an alcoholic beverage that has been consumed in central Mexico for centuries. Agave Americana also attracts hummingbirds.
Foxtail agave is perfect for container growing. It features variegated foliage composed of bright green and yellow colors. Agave parryi is one of the few strains of agave that is perennial to USDA zone 5. It is more frost-resistant than the other varieties and can withstand relatively humid environments.