flowering in fifteen years from seed
Back in the early 2000s I found a website, Mesa Gardens in New Mexico, which had a list of cacti and succulent seed as long as your arm. I pored for hours over all the strange names and even stranger places where the plants grew. Over a number of years I selected some agaves I thought I would like and ordered seed. I sowed it and grew the resulting plants on, and these now form the backbone of my collection. They don’t require much looking after in the summer, but do respond well to a little feeding and watering. I take them inside for the winter. They don’t mind the cold – they can get quite a lot of that in their homeland – but they can’t cope with cold and wet, which is what British winters usually offer.
I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I appreciate their different forms, sizes and textures and am quite content to enjoy them as foliage plants. I love their spikiness and their determination to survive against all the odds.
Agave schidigera – where does it come from?
One such is Agave schidigera, which hails from Mexico, from northwestern Chihuahua south to Michoacán and east to San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and Durango, to be exact. As you can see the leaves have ferocious dark brown spines, but the margins are smooth with white and brown filaments. The leaves of agaves are held in bud for a long time, usually 2-3 years, and can leave an imprint on surrounding leaves. The white marks you can see are these bud imprints. I sowed the seed for this plant in 2005 and have been growing it ever since.
Agaves don’t flower very often. They have the common name of century plant because it was thought that they took 100 years to flower. This is something of an exaggeration but does indicate that an agave in flower is quite a rare sight, especially in the UK.
Imagine my delight therefore when, towards the end of July this year, I noticed a short stem emerging from the centre of the rosette of leaves of my Agave schidigera. It shot skywards and in a little over two weeks grew to about 10 feet high with flower buds all up the stem. And there it stayed for another two weeks.
And then the flowers opened!
Every flower is a fascinating work of art
Each flower has six tepals, fused to form a tube, flared at the top when it opens, and joined at the base to the inferior ovary. There are six stamens and, in the first image below, you can see how they are folded in the flower bud. As the flower opens the filaments unfold, and when they are fully extended the anthers split to reveal the pollen. You can also see that the tube is full of nectar, which attracts the insect pollinators in its native location, but in my garden the ants found it very early on, and wasps were attracted too. Then the bees moved in, and every morning a hoard would arrive to feast on the golden pollen.
In the first image below you can see the anthers shedding pollen and the style, which, at this stage, is short and unreceptive. The other two images show that as the anthers dry the stamens droop and bend downwards, the tepals close and begin to wither, the style elongates and the stigma opens with a sticky coating to be receptive to pollen from the flowers above.
As the flowers faded so more opened up the stem until the ones at the very top, far too high to reach, bloomed. From the first to the last was a little over three weeks.
What happens next?
As the flowers have faded the ovaries have swelled – as you can see, not a pretty sight!. The fruit of an agave is a capsule with three chambers, and I am hoping that they mature and develop seeds. These will be flat, black, and numerous, but the process might take many months.
Sadly, when it has produced seed the whole plant will die. Agaves are monocarpic, and the rosette that produces a flower then dies. Many agaves produce offsets, eventually developing into large colonies in some species.
But Agave schidigera is a loner and rarely produces offsets, relying on seed for its propagation. Luckily, I have a second plant from the same seed sowing, so I wait to see if and when that will flower. I sowed some other different species last spring and I’m going to get another order off to Mesa Gardens and grow something new.
Find some useful information
Grow some agaves from seed.
Take a look at Mesa Garden – they might have just the one you want.
Search the internet – there are lots of places where you can get seed.
My go-to book is Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish, published by Timber Press. It’s detailed enough to be really useful.
There’s an enormous amount of information on the web. Search and then follow some links – you’ll be amazed!
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