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Attack of the monster agaves

January 19, 2010 |  6:00 am

Los Angeles looks a bit like a science fiction movie these days, with enormous plant tentacles reaching out of hillsides all over town. I took this picture in front of a friend's house in Echo Park, but I've seen these massive plant tendrils in my Mount Washington neighborhood for the last few weeks.

Curious to know more, I called up Buck Hemenway, owner of the commercial succulent nursery Prickly Palace, and president of the San Gabriel Cactus and Succulent Society, to find out what exactly was about to ensnare this Toyota.


As I'm sure many of our plant-loving readers know, what I photographed is an agave, agave attenuata to be exact, which is commonly called foxtail agave or California agave. The California name is a bit of a misnomer however; while the plant is popular in Southern California, it is originally from the mountains of central Mexico. It's an easy plant to grow -- it holds up well in the face of sprinklers, but also will tolerate very low water. Most agaves are perfect flower plants, Hemenway explained, which means the male and female parts are in the same plant. They are also mostly monocarpic, which means they produce this bloom only once in their life cycle and then die.

The bloom stalk is 6 inches wide at the base and about 20 feet long if you laid it out flat. This plant is just halfway through its bloom cycle. The part where it is green is covered with unopened flower buds; the yellow fuzzy part are small flowers awaiting pollination. "By the time it is done, she'll have put out millions of seeds," Hemenway said. "She's a pretty good provider for future generations." 

It takes an agave attenuata only six weeks to put up a huge stalk like this, remarkable considering it's about five times as long as the rest of the plant. "Agaves store energy their entire life for this bloom deal," Hemenway said. "They store sugars in their root systems and in their stalk, and then they use all that stored energy to produce the bloom." He added that tequila producers wait until an agave tequiliana is about to bloom, and then extract the sugar and ferment it.

It's a little sad that these plants, which seem so virile now, are really on their last legs, but at least they go out with a heroic display, the result of a lifetime of work.

-- Deborah Netburn

Photo credits: (top) Deborah Netburn

(bottom) Eric Ducker

Want to learn more about these plants? Check out Debra Lee Baldwin's story on boutique agaves.