Petite agaves are small-garden wonders

(Debra Lee Baldwin / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t assume that the enormous, wickedly fanged Agave americana -- better known to some gardeners as the century plant -- is the only agave around. The genus offers hundreds of choices, and some of the most interesting are boutique agaves -- petite selections perfect for patio pots and small gardens.

Native to arid regions of the Southwest and Mexico, agaves grow effortlessly in Southern California. The fibrous leaves of these low-water plants form a rosette that can resemble an artichoke, pincushion or fountain.

Though sharp, spiky leaves on many agaves seem to say “keep away,” soft-leafed varieties do exist, including some that are relatively small. Five years ago, Rancho Soledad Nurseries north of San Diego introduced Blue Glow, an agave that grows to about 2 feet in diameter -- diminutive compared with the 6- to 12-foot spread of a mature century plant. The nursery now ships thousands of Blue Glow agaves worldwide, with the strongest demand in Europe, Japan and Australia.

Blue Glow has stiff, tapered, blue-green leaves with margins that glow ruby-red when backlit. The plant is stunning in a red pot that complements the leaf margins. In silhouette, it resembles a bouquet of knives.

“Its form is architecturally perfect,” says Heather Hunter May, owner of Rancho Tissue Technologies, a Rancho Santa Fe lab that assists the nursery with plant development.

May is working with Kelly Griffin, Rancho Soledad Nurseries’ plant hybridizer, to create a version of Blue Glow with darker leaves. (There’s also a brighter Green Glow, but it has yet to be produced in quantity.)

“Blue Glow is a cross between two species that would never meet in the wild,” Griffin says. “One is from the mountains of Sonora, the other from cliff tops in Jalisco.”

Griffin goes on plant-hunting expeditions every year. Rarely does he run across an agave in the wild that is beautiful or novel enough to be a hit with consumers -- hence the need to create cultivars. But hybridizing agaves is neither quick nor easy. Agaves take seven to 15 years to bloom, so he has a long wait before any plant will produce seeds. Then once an agave blooms, it dies.

“So if you use agaves with a propensity to flower,” he says, “you’ll get offspring with the undesirable trait of dying early.”

But once Griffin manages to breed a great agave, it can be replicated by tissue-culture, each young plant a replica of its parent.

Last year Griffin hiked steep, rocky Huasteca Canyon in Monterrey, Mexico, in search of a soccer ball-sized green agave. Its botanical name, Agave albopilosa, roughly translates to white-haired. “It has what look like balls of white cotton on the leaf tips, which the plant uses to pull in moisture and to shade itself,” Griffin says. “It’s a really unusual small agave, perfect for the home garden.”

He expects Rancho Soledad to have young Agave albopilosa plants available for purchase as early as 2011.

In the meantime, most nurseries with a good selection of succulents have boutique agaves. Some worth considering (and all hardy to several degrees below freezing, unless otherwise noted):

Queen Victoria agave, Agave victoria- reginae. Dark green, wedge-shaped leaves are outlined in white with black terminal spines. It grows about a foot tall and 18 inches wide. The variety called Compacta is spherical; Golden Princess has yellow stripes.

King Ferdinand agave, Agave ferdinandi-regis. It’s similar to victoria-reginae but has fewer and larger leaves and is blue-gray with chalky white lines.

Gypsum century plant,Agave gypsophila. It’s not so petite, growing 2 to 3 feet in diameter, but the silvery gray leaves twist and curl for an unusual look. They appear to be trimmed with pinking shears. New cultivars with even wavier leaves are being developed. It’s susceptible to frost, so it needs protection at 32 degrees.

Joe Hoak. Two-foot-long leaves are green brushed with cream, with leaf margins that are yellow.

Kichijokan. A compact rosette grows to about 2 feet in diameter with blue leaves and brown teeth. There is also a striped variety.

Quadricolor, a type of Agave lophantha. Dark green leaves have pale yellow edges and a center stripe of light green. Spikes are dark red. The plant grows to about a foot in diameter.

Cream Spike, a type of Agave parryi. Stout, triangular green leaves are edged in cream. Its maximum size is usually 4 inches tall by 6 inches wide.

Thread-leaf agave,Agave filifera. Slender leaves have white threads that curl away from the edges. Most are 1 1/2 to 2 feet in diameter.

Once you’ve chosen the right plant, give it the right care. Plant it in soil that drains well. Use bagged cactus mix or amend potting soil with one-half to one-third perlite or pumice.

Agaves can rot in soggy soil, so let them go nearly dry between waterings. Make sure the location has good air circulation and a minimum of four hours of sunlight daily.

To protect yourself and others from impalement, blunt spines by snipping off an eighth-inch of the leaf tips.

Last but not least, don’t sever an agave’s flower spike to prevent the plant from dying. Accept the inevitable and enjoy the show.

Baldwin is the author of “Succulent Container Gardens,” due out this month, as well as the 2007 book “Designing With Succulents.” Comments: