Tourists may snap pictures of palms, but here in Southern California, the backbone of many gardens is none other than the agave. Before this hardy plant flowers and dies, it can deliver years of sculptural beauty, perhaps in the form of the wispy Agave geminiflora (pictured on Page F1) or the thick-leafed Agave americana that designer David Brian Sanders chose for a Richard Neutra home (shown below). We asked authorities on desert plants to recommend their favorites and offer advice on using agaves to their fullest effect. Six picks from the pros:
Agave americana 'Variegata'
The look: Say "agave," and many people think of americana. Commanding in stature and structure, most century plants grow 6 to 10 feet tall, and some are as wide as 13 feet. 'Variegata' is bold yet elegant, with broad, pointed gray-blue leaves with yellow stripes.
Planting: Cut off the hooked poisonous tips if near a walkway or if children or pets will be present. As old leaves become dry and messy, cut them off as close to the base as possible.
Flowers: The fast-growing flower stalk looks like a giant asparagus, with greenish yellow blooms. The stalk grows 6 to 14 inches daily, reaching up to 35 inches tall. It generally appears after eight to 10 years. This agave propagates by growing offshoots called "pups," which can be detached.
Final thoughts: 'Variegata' is fine in containers when the plant is young.
The look: Pictured on Page F1, the dense rosette, 2 to 3 feet in diameter, has 100 to 200 dark green, wispy leaves. "It looks so different from other agaves, it's always an attention getter -- very delicate," says Greg Starr, owner of Starr Nursery, a mail-order operation in Tucson.
Planting: Because of its size, this agave looks lovely in containers or in mass plantings. Leaves will be stiffer in full sun and more flexible in shade, though the plant will do well in both conditions.
Flowers: After about 10 years, a spike will grow 9 to 12 feet tall. The flowers, yellow with a flush of red or purple, appear in pairs on the upper part of the stalk. Propagation is by seed.
Final thoughts: Unlike many agaves, A. geminiflora is unarmed -- no spiky tips -- so passersby won't be scratched.
Agave 'Blue Glow'
The look: A blue-tinged agave that grows 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide.
Planting: This hybrid can thrive in full sun or filtered light. Keep the bluish color by limiting water, which can wash the glaucous wax off the surface.
Flowers: They appear in fall and winter. A yellow-greenish bloom rises 8 to 10 feet after about 20 years.
Final thoughts: No spikes or prickles. 'Blue Glow' and the similar 'Blue Flame' are favorites of Rex Yarwood, buyer at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar. "Both are gorgeous," he says.
The look: A medium-size species that grows in a single rosette with 200 or more leaves. It has a noticeable trunk when mature and can spread 5 feet wide. Leaves are long and lovely, with white filaments that look like gossamer threads. The plant reaches maturity in five to 10 years.
Planting: Does fine in full or filtered sun. It requires only occasional water during the height of summer. As a container plant, it needs water only once or twice a week.
Flowers: The spike can grow to 16 feet, with dense flowers that are green and edged in pink.
Final thoughts: This variety is often confused with others. A. multifilifera is distinguished by its trunk, longer leaves and heavy filament, says Mary Irish, coauthor of "Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants."
The look: It's a petite beauty, a maximum of 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Depending on the cultivar -- there are more than 30 -- leaves are blue-gray to green, and sometimes variegated. The rosette has about 50 to 80 symmetrical leaves.
Planting: Southern California's dry, coastal conditions are perfect. Some frost protection is needed below 25 degrees. If soil is heavy clay, mix in pumice or gravel, or plant potatorum on a mound. In summer, it needs watering only once a month. Great in containers.
Flowers: Flowers generally appear after 10 to 25 years. Green-yellow blooms tinged red can rise 10 to 20 feet. This agave propagates by spreading seeds.
Final thoughts: Molly Thongthiraj, co-owner of California Cactus Center in Pasadena, calls the butterfly agave one of her favorites. "If landscape designers knew of and used this plant more often, it would become a classic," she says.
Queen Victoria agave
The look: Graphic and compact, usually 20 inches or less in diameter. The striking dark green and white-striped leaves form a symmetrical rosette.
Planting: This agave grows best in full sun. Mass plantings are sumptuous. In the low desert heat, water at least twice a month in the summer to prevent yellowing.
Flowers: A dense spike 10 to 13 feet tall, with cream-colored blooms tinged red and purple. Propagation is by seed or by removal of an occasional offset.
Final thoughts: "I love this agave," says Gabriela Yariv, owner of Venice-based Gabriela Yariv Landscape Design. "It can be used to great effect as its dark green leaves contrast so well against the grays of Senecio mandraliscae (blue finger) and fescue and other popular, light-colored succulents and grasses. It also stands gorgeous alone."
- Janet Kinosian