My Mysterious Agave.

By Marilyn N. Dudek, Master Gardener

How does one become attracted to growing an Agave for a houseplant? Or the many other tender Echeveria that take up residence in my home for the winter and summer outdoors? Is it the structural simplicity and perfection of their Fibonacci sequence of leaves?

August 2009

My agave journey began when our son and his family lived, for 15 years, in Scottsdale, Arizona. My husband and I spent our winters in Arizona, which introduced us to the beauty of the desert and to the many plant varieties of this beautiful area. Many agave plant varieties grow in abundance in the surrounding Sonoran desert, side by side with the stately Saguaro.

Agave are popularly known as ‘century plants’, referring to their longevity, although grown in nature not 100 years but closer to 30, or for producing tequila. The ‘century plant’ refers to Agave americana while the tequila references Agave tequilana ‘Weber Azul’. There are a number of subspecies, varieties and cultivars in the Agave plant kingdom. Many agaves are used ornamentally, in home and commercial desert landscapes, throughout the world.

I purchased my Agave angustifolia ‘Marginata’, approximately fifteen years ago at the local hardware/plant store, in a four-inch container. Little did I know the journey we would experience together, sometimes with difficulty. An agave plant is easy to grow but not easy to live with!

Summer 2011

Agave angustifolia ‘marginata’, is classified as a smaller growing Agave and good for container growing. Mine grew to approximately 3 feet in diameter and height, so the reference to ‘small’ for inside growing as a houseplant equals quite a large plant. One also needs to consider the surrounding safety perimeter required to escape from being stabbed by the needle-sharp points on the leaves.

Throughout the early growing years, the agave spent summer outside and winter inside in a cold room under lights. When it became too large to put downstairs into the cold room, and was in its own container, our sunroom became its winter haven. Much ingenuity was required to squish the Agave through the patio door, and we considered it an accomplishment if we weren’t ‘attacked’! The Agave was enjoyed throughout the winter bringing the dramatic structural beauty into our living space. With the sunlight glowing on the leaves and unfurling patterns embedded onto the emerging leaves, the plant offered many photo opportunities.

On November 15,2021, the centre meristem began to change. Rather than the leaves unfurling in their beautiful pattern, a thickening and whitening of the area was occurring. An unbelievable growing pattern followed with growth an approximate four inches a day to reach the peak height. The measuring of this growth pattern, of the emerging peduncle – the stem that will support the coming inflorescence, or flowers – surpassed the two, metre measuring sticks, which we had taped together. Agave plants, being in the Asparagaceae family of plants, produce this stalk, which appears like a giant asparagus stem including the flattened leaves along it.

Meristem changing – November 15, 2021
November 17/21 – note the height comparison to window.
November 24, 2021
November 24, 2021

Once the secondary peduncles began to emerge the main peduncle growth slowed, and the elongation of these secondary peduncles began a candelabra-like formation. On the completion of this growth, the candelabra structure reached the height of twelve feet in one month. Fortunately, our ceiling peaks at fourteen feet. It has been noted that occasionally agave plants, grown in a greenhouse or conservatory, require opening the glass roof panes for this flower stalk.

December 2, 2021
December 11, 2021

As these secondary branches grew the ends began to thicken and soon white flower-like growths appeared. They lasted for a few days before buds began to form which were similar in appearance to lily buds and why previously Agave belonged to the Liliaceae family.

December 12, 2021
December 20, 2021
February 4, 2021
February 6, 2022

Over approximately six weeks these buds thickened and began to open. How exciting! What would happen next? Every day was a surprise as to what new occurrence would appear. As the buds were opening stamens were seen protruding from the splitting bud. Fully open it was a sight to behold with many stamens and then the pistil appearing. The stamens were laden with so much pollen and dripping nectar from the buds, that the leaves on the plant were covered and therefore required frequent cleaning.

February 8, 2022
February 11, 2021
February 18, 2022
February 24, 2022

February 11, 2022

Through our winter desert stays in Arizona, I was aware that little plantlets appear on this candelabra-style growth after completion of flowering. In my research, I discovered agaves are not self-fertilizing and require pollinators. Who are the Agave pollinators? Bats are the main pollinators with moths being secondary, but since I have neither moths nor bats living in my house (thankfully!), I became the pollinator. This made sense as we learned that in the evening the agave emitted a scent that was not noticed during daylight. Over the next few weeks, I climbed our 12-foot ladder (which became part of our sunroom décor since the agave began this journey), with a cotton swab in hand gathering the stamen pollen and dabbing the tip of the pistil to transfer the pollen onto it until all the buds opened fully in hopes of tricking the fertilization process.

Photo by: John Dudek

When the pollination finished some of the buds dried to become dark pods while the majority of the pods simply dropped off the plant. On handling and dissecting of these dropped specimens, I discovered an abundance of nectar in this plant.

March 25, 2022
February 8, 2022
June 23, 2022

We could see the slow demise of this once-stunning plant to which we had become so attached. The leaves began to brown, droop, and sadly die. The big peduncle also began a slow browning travelling up the stem. The dark brown pods became larger and then a new phenomenon occurred: – plantlets began to form on the ends where the dropped pods had been. As I had seen this growth naturally in the desert, it was interesting to see how it occurred on my plant in an unnatural setting.

August 25, 2022

What caused the agave plant to flower after so many years? In nature, agave plants store carbohydrates over many years in their core, or pina, which enlarges as the plant ages. Various weather patterns control the amount of carbohydrates produced and saved each year. Was it the very hot temperatures of the summer of 2021 and late frost when the plant remained outdoors until mid-October? Or perhaps it was the tomato plant food I fed it in the spring of 2021, a treatment I learned from a favourite Irish plant woman, Helen Dillon, whose agaves I saw when I toured her Dublin garden? Until 2021, the only soil/fertilizing used every spring was a topping of fresh soil and a slow-release fertilizer.

October 21/22 – rhizomatous suckers

The will of this plant to continue its legacy is inspiring. Survival will not only be through these new mini duplicates but also through the rhizomatous suckers, or ‘pups’, I had removed from the agave that would grow around the plant base. Agaves, being monocots, bloom once, and then the plant dies. Ultimately, we knew this evolution would occur, but the mystery was when it would happen. Fortunately, through perseverance – along with threats to give it away to strangers who admired the plant during the summer in our front yard – our attachment to our agave has grown, especially for my husband who often was the recipient of the sharpness of agave’s personality.

October 21/22


October 21/22

At this time of writing, our Agave remains with us. I have climbed the ladder to remove a few of the plantlets to grow in containers in order for the miracle and mysteries of our Agave to continue. The black large pods hopefully will produce seeds, but it will remain to be seen if they are viable requiring another plant for proper fertilization. It will be a sad removal from our home and that decision has yet to be made. As the leaves, including the peduncle, are made of very strong fibres called pita, used for rope making and other items, the removal will be another of our unique experiences.

Shadow of its former self – October 21, 2022

Published: November 2022
Photos: Marilyn N. Dudek unless otherwise noted.