You’ve likely heard about Century Plants—showy succulents that purportedly bloom only every 100 years.
If you haven’t seen a century plant flower, it is worth driving few miles to see the show when you hear about one nearby.
A mature Century Plant can grow to 10 ft. wide and 6 ft. high. Locally they bloom during June and July when a bloom stalk shoots up more than 20 feet from the center of a rosette of blue-gray sword-shaped leaves. Bell-shaped flowers open their way up the towering stalk. Blooms range in color from green to yellow to white. From beginning and end of the bloom process extends beyond June and July, stretching to months.
Century Plant is the common name and a misnomer for the Agave (ah-GAH-vee) americana we typically see growing in local yards. Fortunately, we do not have to wait 100 years to see the plant bloom. The local species matures with four to six foot leaves and blooms in 10 to 20 years. They are monocarpic, which means they die after flowering. However, the plant leaves behind offsets to continue the life cycle—live, bloom and die.
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Similar but tropical species in warmer drier climates may grow only as tall as a few inches and bloom in four years, or as tall as 12 feet and bloom in 60 years.
Most Agave species are indigenous to Mexico, with a few species native in semi-arid and dry southwestern U.S. and the West Indies. Generally, the Agave prefers a drier location than South Carolina, but it does well in the warmer coastal areas of the state. In the right location the species is carefree and little short of bullet-proof.
Site requirements include porous well-drained soil and full sun. Look for a sunny dry spot in your yard. It doesn’t matter if nothing else grows there. Although temperatures in the low teens may damage some leaves during winter, the Agave is hardy down to 12° F. Tropical Agave species are not winter hardy in our climate zone.
South Carolina weather provides more rain and humidity than the Agave’s native dry climate. As a result, especially after extended periods of clouds and rain, leaves may develop black or brown spots, possibly ringed in yellow. This is fungus. Treat it with fungicide. Remove and dispose of badly infected leaf parts or entire leaves. Help prevent disease by removing any leaves rotting from cold damage.
Agave leaves are densely fibrous. Use a serrated knife to cut them. The bigger and older the plant, the harder it is to remove its leaves with gardening tools. By the time an agave blooms and dies, a chainsaw is the tool of choice to remove the depleted plant remains.
Agave americana readily produces offshoots, some as far away as 15 feet from the original plant. Offshoots can be a problem to remove if they are tucked into a garden filled with other plants. The situation is easy to prevent by growing your specimen in a pot. If you want clones of your original plant to give away or use elsewhere, in time suckers will develop in a pot at the base of the mother plant. They can be removed and grown separately. The alternative is to grow an Agave in a dedicated or open area and allow suckers to freely crop up.
As spectacular as agave can be in the yard, and as easy as it is to maintain, there are some aspects of the plant that may prove difficult for gardeners and homeowners.
Leaves have sharp edges and thorn-like tips. This exposes children and pets to an element of danger. Although the thorn-like leaf tips can be pruned off, the enduring stiff sharply edged leaves remain a threat to people and pets.
The sap from an Agave can be highly irritating to the skin, causing intense itching and a rash. Wear gloves and protective clothing when pruning, repotting, digging or disrupting a plant.
Keep your eyes and ears open for the location of a blooming Agave during the next couple of months. Once you see the spectacle you’ll be glad you did.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at email@example.com.