Life and Death and Agave

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              For many people, their greatest achievements come at the end of life when they have gained great wisdom and experience.  This too is so with agaves, those extraordinarily tough succulents unique to our new world deserts.  Among them is locally native Agave deserti, with its twisted rosettes of blue leaves that contain a vital source of strong, yet soft fiber harvested a century ago by Cahuilla weavers. Newcomers to desert gardening discover their beautifully blooming plant cannot be coaxed to live after flowers fade.  This is because agaves bloom but once in their lifetime in a spectacular  effort to reproduce itself both by seed, and by cloning itself vegetatively just before death. The entire life span of an agave serves just one purpose: to store enough energy to produce an enormous flower spike.  Those grown for the manufacture of tequila are harvested just before the flowers form, when sugar content is highest to enhance the fermentation process. Some species produce branching spikes with tufts of bright yellow flower clusters at the tips.  Others are a single stalk sheathed in flowers.  It’s believed the highly held flowers allow their scent to lure pollinators over long distances across a barren desert.  Another reason for agave’s very tall spikes is bats, which relish the nectar.  Eco location makes it dangerous when agaves are in a habitat filled with many other spiny or thorny plants.  But with flowers high above the spines, bats easily find and feed upon the nectar, thus ensuring pollination. Each species of agave grows for a certain time span needed to accumulate these sugars.  The average is about 25 years, but some may live far longer.  Problems arise with short lived agaves because they may not last long enough to use in outdoor landscaping. One of our most commonly used species is dark green, vase-shaped Agave desmettiana.  It is the best example of many ways agaves reproduce to sustain the species in difficult climates.  After the bloom stalk sheds its flowers, small perfect plants called bulbils form where blooms detach.  They are the back-up plan for reproduction because conditions are so dry that it’s rare for some agave to grow from seed in the wild.  These bulbils are genetic clones of the mother plant, and when they get large enough they detach in the wind and fall, littering the ground around the mother.  Here they’ll root and grow to maturity unless gathered by an intrepid gardener. This bulbil production is only found in a few species, which coincidentally include our low desert tolerant Agave vilmorniana and Agave angustifolia.  When an agave is old enough to bloom it will do so in spring. My first bulbils were found in the parking lot where they littered the pavement beneath a blooming mother plant.  I rescued as many as I could, stuffing them into my purse to take home to plant in the sand and shade of my irrigated garden.  They were tucked into natural soil
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Dramatic and Free: Garden Decor

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At the end of the season there are always stalks and branches to be had. And when these are used in the right setting they become a valuable tool for exploiting color, form and contrast. Nowhere is this more doable than in the southwest when the agaves send up their enormous stalks to flower. Some types of yucca do the same and dasilirion, also known as the desert spoon is another contender. All too often these architectural byproducts of plants are chipped, crushed and thrown into the garbage, but if dried and preserved they make outstanding free outdoor decorations. This beautiful example of repurposed agave stalks illustrates how leftover paint can be put to good use. Note the turquoise window trim on the upper right of this photo. The paint left over was used to create a “wash” over well dried agave stalks. A wash is created with ordinary latex paint thinned down with water to create a more semitransparent stain-like application. If the stalk was simply painted, it would be far too uniform. The aged look shown here allows the original surface with its flakes and peels to show through. That is an artificial patina that can be created on any kind of twig, in this case to lend the Santa Fe look when set against a solid colored wall. This high contrast approach is the perfect way to add interest to nooks and crannies of architecture.