By: Zoe Eads-Scofield, Horticulture Assistant
With the recent snow and cold temperatures, the Chadwick team has been working on sprucing up the tropical plants within Howlett Greenhouse. One of the notable plants that we worked on was the agave, which can be seen on display near the trellis entrance during summer months. Agave americana, which is also known as sentry plant, century plant, maguey, or American aloe is a large evergreen perennial. This succulent forms rosettes of thick, spiny, blue-green leaves that can grow up to 6 feet long. Agave americana exhibits an upright growth habit of 3-6 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. This Native to Mexico and the Southern United States prefers slightly acidic, sandy, or gravely well drained soils. Although these plants must be kept in a frost free area, they are extremely heat and drought tolerant. This hardy plant is also relatively disease free and deer resistant.
The root system is made up of a network of shallow rhizomes called pups, which can be grown into new plants. Although it is called the century plant, it typically lives only 10-30 years. Near the end of its life the plant sends up a tall, branched stalk, with yellow blossoms, which can reach a total height up to 8–9 meters. You can prune the flower stalk of ornamental agave in order to prolong the life of the plant. In addition to being an ornamentally effective specimen, this plant also has industrial and culinary uses.
If the flower stem is cut before flowering, a sweet liquid gathers in the hollowed heart of the plant which can be fermented to produce the alcoholic drink called pulque. The leaves also yield fibers known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, or coarse cloth. In the tequila producing regions of Mexico, agaves are called mezcales. A. americana is one of several agaves used for distillation in the high alcohol product of fermented agave distillation. Mezcal and tequila, although also produced from agave plants, are different from pulque in their technique for extracting the sugars from the heart of the plant, and in that they are distilled spirits. In mezcal and tequila production, the sugars are extracted from the hearts by heating them in ovens, rather than by collecting aguamiel from the plant's cut stalk. Agave nectar is also marketed as a natural form of sugar with a low glycemic index that is due to its high fructose content.
This versatile plant should be up-potted every year and any dead or damaged leaves should be pruned off. This maintenance can be performed with pruners or a saw. During our pruning of the agave this year, I experienced a rash after coming in contact with a freshly pruned leaf.
Word of Warning: this rash occurred due to the sap of the plant which contains calcium oxalate crystals, or raphides which are needle sharp crystals that can pierce the skin and cause dermatitis. The rash went away eventually, but this is something that should be taken into consideration when performing maintenance and upkeep for this plant.