Thursday, September 06, 2012

Blue Agave

Agave americana is a traditional Native American source of food, fiber, needles and hooks, as well as a sweetener which is tapped from the flowering stalks or roasted out of the heart.  The flesh of the heart is also eaten after roasting, in addition to being dried and pounded (after roasting) to make a kind of flour, and the heart is also processed as a source of starch. 

While most of us will not be doing the research and the work necessary to process Agave for food, this plant is one of the sources for the Agave syrup sold today!  While this sweetener does agree with some people much better than other sweeteners; we cannot really consider the modern processed and refined agave syrup commonly sold to be either a low glycemic or an unprocessed food. (Commercial Agave syrup generally has a high carbon footprint and sometimes utilizing solvents, in addition to being very high in fructose.)  

More than likely I won’t be processing Agave for food, but I do plan on processing the leaves for fiber and needles. This was one of my Gram’s favorite plants.* She processed them for fiber and used the cords and needles as the weavers in her pine needle baskets!  Agave fiber is also used to make string, cord and rope, for nets, bags, and hammocks, as well as hats and some very fine basket work!  But even if you have no desire to utilize Agave for food or fiber, these drought tolerant architectural plants add fabulous color and textural to the landscape.  

Blue Agave grows slowly, eventually reaching to 14 feet high!  They bloom at maturity, anywhere from 15 - 35 years (sooner when kept in containers) and their bloom stalk can reach upwards of 25 feet! The main plant dies back after blooming, but the plants produce off-sets called “pups” throughout their lives.  These pups live on after their parent plant dies.  Blue Agave can also be kept small, by starting with young pups and keeping them in small sturdy containers.  If you have very bright light they will do OK indoors--but watch out for the spines.

The thorns and hooks are formidable, and the sap from the leaves can be allergenic--causing rashes and irritation for those susceptible.  Thick long sleeves, sturdy gloves, and eye protection should be worn when pruning, removing pups, or working around the plants.

This pup is about 6 inches from tip to base of bulb.
Propagation is generally accomplished by carefully removing the pups that form at the base of the plant.  Once they have formed the beginnings of a few leaves, as seen in the photo, they can survive on their own.  When young, they are often connected to the parent plant by a thick starchy root.  As much of this root as possible should be retained when potting the plants up, to help nourish the young plant.  This root eventually withers, even when the pups aren’t removed from their parent, and the pups form a starchy storage bulb at their base.  Pups should be planted with the thick root and/or pale colored storage bulb beneath the soil, and they should be kept a little on the moist side (but never soggy) for the first six months or so while they are establishing roots.  

Any well drained potting medium that you are familiar working with is fine.  The leaner the planting mix, the brighter the sun, the less water you supply, the slower they will grow.  Be careful of burning your pup, however.  Filtered sun is the best while they are establishing their roots.  Pups planted in rich potting medium, watered regularly (but never soggy) and kept in filtered or bright shade will grow the fastest; however, it will be difficult to get them accustomed to the sun without significant burning.  If you are going to eventually plant yours in full sun, they should be accustoming to at least a little sun from infancy.  Then as they establish their roots and begin to grow, you can get them used to receiving more sun gradually.   

The following plants are all about 6 months old, all from the same parent, but they have been grown out in different situations:

Grown in shade with good quality potting soil and regular watering. (6 inch pot.)

Grown in a gritty potting mix, in full sun, and watered only as absolutely necessary. (6 inch pot.)

Planted in the ground in unimproved soil, filtered shade, occasional supplemental water, with thick mulch.

Planted improperly (not deep enough) in full sun, with no mulch or supplemental water.  Please note--that while it hasn't grown, it also hasn't died either!

Just for fun--here is a mixed succulent container, also about the same age as the others,which includes an Aloe, mini ice plant, and a few Sedums.
If you are planning to plant yours in the ground, choose a well drained bright spot, away from plants that need moist soil.  Look up before committing to a certain spot, and make sure they can bloom without causing problems with overhangs or overhead wires.  Soil is not much of an issue, as long as it is well drained and never soggy.  These plants can reach outwards of ten feet across at maturity, so you need a spot with plenty of room!  They are hardy in the ground to 10F; they can withstand some snow, and once established they will only rarely request a little supplemental water.  In fact, it is best to plan on not watering them at all after their first year or two in the ground.  On the other hand, keep an eye on your container plants; let the soil dry out completely between watering once established, but do give them the occasional drink that they will need.  

Have you decided that you must have one of these fabulous plants for your very own?  You are in luck!  I occasionally have auctions for small to large pups on (Grown without any chemicals!) I can also list young rooted plants, or mixed containers that include young Blue Agave, which have all been grown in certified organic potting soil.  If you are looking for a larger specimen, I might be able to arrange for that also, but shipping and crating will be considerations.  Listia is an on-line bartering platform.  It's free, it works on points (called credits) and you can earn these credits a number of ways (by listing your own auctions, or by taking surveys--for instance).  And if eBay works better for you, just let me know.  If you have any question, please feel free to leave them in comments section below, or catch up with me on facebook.
Here is a link to join Listia that fixes you up with some free credits:   Once you are a member you can check out my auctions here:  If I do not currently have an auction for Blue Agave listed, please feel free to contact me about your interest and I would be happy to put an auction up for you. (And again, I can put one up on eBay if that works better for you.
Happy Gardening!

*P.S.  My Gram was very wise!  I share some of her wisdom in each of my books; Sacred Smoke theAncient Art of Smudging for Modern Times and Food Security and Sustainability for the Times Ahead.

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