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Gardening : <i> Agave americana</i> Century plant

Succulent with fleshy, strap-shaped leaves

Picture it: Los Angeles, 1973. A new homeowner walks into her Echo Park back yard and confronts an agave the size of City Hall. Its green-and-yellow-striped leaves are at least eight feet long, and the whole monster rests on its own 4-foot-high hill. It is a big plant.

What does she feed it?

Anyone it wants.

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Seriously, it was spectacular, and when it finally bloomed and collapsed in 1976, the entire character of the yard changed.

That plant was an Agave americana “Variegata”; there is also the species type, which has plain blue-green leaves. Both kinds are dangerous, with barbs on the stem tips that inflict ice-pick puncture wounds. Even the smaller spines along the sides of the leaves can snag cotton gloves and leave shallow flesh wounds.

But there are advantages that make a few scars worthwhile: “It’s just such a majestic plant,” says Santa Monica landscape architect Pamela Burton of Burton & Spitz, “and it had great historical and medicinal value to the Indians. They ground up the base for soap, pounded the leaves into a kind of sisal fabric, used the tip as a needle and ate the flower.”

She also prizes agaves for their beauty (“they frame a very dramatic setting against the sunset”), planning to use them in large planters on a downtown project near the Museum of Contemporary Art. Agaves are also wonderfully adaptable to a steep slope, a desert rock garden or beachfront property. If you want people to stay on a particular path, line it with agaves; even energetic dogs won’t brave such a barrier.

At one time, century plants were common in Southern California landscapes, but they fell out of favor when lush lawns and tropical plants became popular. Now they are starting to make a comeback, probably because they are perfect xeriscape elements: Agaves require almost no irrigation and are ideally suited to our sandy, alkaline soil. They multiply whether you want them to or not, sending out babies (called offsets) that grow close to the mother plant--so close that weeding is virtually impossible. (Weeds aren’t dumb; they know where they’re safe.)

Century plant is a misnomer; this agave blooms after 10 to 25 years of growth, not 100. The flowers are yellowish-green and bell-shaped, marching along a 10- to 40-foot-tall stalk that shoots up from the center of the plant. I’ve read that the flowers are fragrant, but I could never get close enough to find out. Once the seeds ripen, the flowers fade and the mother plant dies; this could take many weeks.

Serra Gardens in Malibu has a sizable collection of all kinds of agaves, including Agave horrida , a ground cover. The plain Agave americana can reach a formidable size, as can “Variegata,” but “Media Picta Alba,” with strong white variegation in the middle of the leaf, is a smaller version, reaching only about 4 feet in height. The latter is available at Serra Gardens, or it can be ordered by a local nursery from wholesale-only San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara.

And if you know someone with a few offshoots to spare, don’t hesitate; just stick them in the ground, water once or twice (or more if it’s mid-summer) and enjoy watching a tough, beautiful native take hold. A mature agave (but not so mature that you can’t lift it) will also transplant with ease; just be sure to wear leather gloves and a suit of armor.

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