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Agave americana

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A very common pot plant, often seen neglected and in various stages of dilapidation on window sills and in greenhouses.  A native of Mexico, it was introduced into Europe in the mid 16th century, probably via Spain.  It won’t survive winter outdoors in most parts of the UK, not just because of the temperature – it often falls well below freezing in its native habitat at certain times of the year – but because of the combination of cold and damp; so it needs to be grown in a pot and taken indoors in the winter.  The specimen in the Fig. 1 is growing in 10" pot.  Under these conditions it will almost certainly never flower, but on the other hand it will probably outlive the gardener.

It is well armed (Fig. 2): the marginal spines are hook shaped and sharp, but the terminal spine (inset) is up to 1½"/36mm long, straight, hard and very sharp (stand too close to the plant and you'll find out just how sharp).  In rural Mexico they use them as pins and even nails.

Agave americana is often called the 'century plant' (though this can also refer to some other Agave species).  This name is based on the myth that it lives for a hundred years, flowers and then dies.  In fact flowering is determined by maturity and growing conditions, rather than by age.  The part of the plant that bears the flower spike does indeed usually die after flowering, but in practice, the plant produces numerous suckers which live on as separate individuals.  Some of these are clearly visible in Fig. 1.

In the far southwest of the UK, the winters are mild enough to enable A. americana to grow outside.   The mag-nificent specimen in Fig. 3 is growing in Trebah gardens in southern Cornwall - it's a real monster – about 7’ across and about 4’ high. 

If you can persuade A. americana to flower, the whole neighbourhood will know, because the flower stem – known as a ‘mast’ – can be up to 30’/10m high.  It has been known to flower in the Isles of Scilly, and very occasionally on mainland Cornwall - there was a case in St. Merryn near Padstow in the summer of 2010 - but not elsewhere on the British mainland.

A range of concoctions have been made from the sap for which a variety of medical/magical properties have been claimed.  If you’re tempted to experiment with it - and we don't recommend it - do bear in mind that it can cause severe allergic skin reactions in some people - severe enough to land you in A & E in great pain.

If the flower stem (mast) is cut before the flower is fully developed, it exudes a sweet sap which in Mexico is fermented and then distilled to produce traditional drinks.  Tequila is produced this way, but from Agave tequilana.