Thursday, October 18, 2007

Psychopath (Agave victoriae-reginae)

Let me say first that "psychopath" is probably a bit strong for this particular species of Agave. It's the only Agave I personally own, and although it is pretty well-behaved, really, all things considered, its brethren where I work are pot-breaking, knife-waving maniacs.

Several weeks back, I was running around in the greenhouse, doing whatever it is that I usually do there, when I noticed a plant on the floor. It was an Agave americana in a clay pot, that had fallen. The pot was broken, and the roots were a little tight in there anyway, so I went ahead and moved it up to a slightly-bigger pot, all the while cursing out whatever oblivious customer had knocked it over, or let his/r kids knock it over. You know the kind of grumbling this would involve: Stupid customers don't even tell people when they knock shit over, just leave it for me to find as if it happened all by itself, shouldn't have those down so low to the ground anyway, some day some kid's going to come along and fall and lose an eye on one of those spines. . . .

And then, a couple weeks after that, it happened again. Similar deal, except that this happened like ten minutes before I was supposed to go home, so I didn't do the repotting on that one. But it, too, had a pretty compact root ball, and at some point when I was running it to the repotting room it hit me – the plants were the ones doing this, not the customers. Presumably the jumping off of the inverted pots we were using to display them better was the result of the movement created when the pots cracked, and the pots were cracking because the plants were terribly, terribly rootbound.

So, not only a psychopath, but a suicidal psychopath.

The Agaves and I coexisted peacefully for a while, and then I had to do some rearranging of a table full of 4-inch Agaves which had been packed too closely together. Every time I tried to reach in to pull one out, it seemed like, I got jabbed by a spine or caught on a hook of some kind. It was like they didn't realize that I had their pathetic little lives in my hands – no rain unless I say so, after all. Except – maybe they did know, and this was another suicide attempt.


In any case. The one I have at home is much better behaved, though the photo here doesn't really do it justice. We have some that are the color of the one in the picture, and then others that are a much darker, bluish-green color and a little less densely-packed; mine at home is one of the darker ones. The blue-green is very striking against the white leaf edges.

Something you wouldn't know from looking at the picture is that the leaves actually have small backward-pointing hooks on them, so if you reach in to pick a chunk of perlite away with your fingers, you're likely to feel a slight jab when you try to pull your fingers back out again. It's worse if you're in a hurry. Like any good psychopath, Agaves are only reluctantly disarmed: you can cut off the spines at the end of the leaves, but the leaves remain pointy regardless, and it becomes a question of, would I like to be stabbed a quarter of an inch deep, or a half an inch deep?

You cannot, under any circumstances, overwater, and it absolutely, positively, has to have full sun indoors. Most everything else – neglect, dry air, wild swings in temperature – it can roll with just fine. They also don't propagate easily: the most common way is to separate offsets, and that's not hard to do, but they are very slow-growing plants that offset when they want to, not when you want them to, which means if you're having trouble with one, it's not usually going to be possible to grab an offset and try again.


photo credit: Stan Shebs at Wikipedia entry for Agave


brianhebb said...

where can i buy a full grown agave v-r?


mr_subjunctive said...

What, I'm a personal shopper now? Call your local garden centers and ask them what they've got, what they might be able to order, etc. That said, full-grown slow-growing plants aren't just falling off trucks: be prepared to be disappointed and/or poorer.

Alternately, you could buy a small one and wait.

Anonymous said...

Any potter can tell you that occasionally ceramic pots junp off shelves all by themselves. So perhaps your jumping agaves were actually victims. ''If I have to go, I'm taking someone with me!"


Chad said...

I got mine at the Santa Barbara botanical garden near the mission for a mere 10 dollars. And it had two offshoots on it. When I transplanted, I broke one off to become a gift for a friend, but the poor little thing caught scale and won't be recovering, sadly.

anon in Canada said...

When you say "you absolutely cannot overwater" do you mean "absolutely do not overwater" or "it is not possible to overwater as they love as much water as they can get"?

mr_subjunctive said...

anon in Canada:

I mean under no circumstances should you overwater.

Robin said...

Firstly, love your articles - genuine gold :) Secondly:

"you absolutely cannot overwater"

I read this sort of thing in almost every other gardening article. It's totally tautological and doesn't give any idea how frequently you should water, and with how much. I really wish gardeners would be more specific!

mr_subjunctive said...


Fair enough. Read it like "if you're not sure whether it's dry enough to need water, then don't."

The most common situation where this is a concern is with plants that are overpotted (in too large of a pot).

Well great, I don't know how big "too large" is either, Mr. S.

If a plant is indoors, the pot needs to be however wide is necessary to accommodate the root ball, plus up to 2 inches (5 cm). If the roots have a thick layer of soil around them and can't grow into the layer of soil quickly enough, they're much more likely to rot.

Ideally, you should use a soil mix that drains and dries quickly, something with a lot of coarse sand or gravel in it, and a relatively small amount of water-retentive material like peat moss. If you have to choose between a tall, skinny pot, and a short, squat one, go with the short one; water will evaporate faster from it.

I don't recommend putting decorative stones / moss / ornaments on the soil surface, as they impede the evaporation of moisture.

When deciding whether to water, stick a finger (or, if spines make this impossible, maybe a wooden pencil or chopstick) into the center of the rootball and see if it comes out at all damp. (For larger plants, or harder to access root balls, you may be able to tell how wet it is by weight, though it takes time and practice to learn how heavy pots are when wet or dry.) Damp = don't water; dry = water. In situations where you're not sure and it could go either way, don't water.

Specific enough?

Tomek said...

Dear owner of this blog aka (PLANT GOD),

Are you still 'into plants'?

I love this plant and recently had the chance to buy one for a great deal but didn't pull the trigger for fear I couldn't provide it with adequate light indoors. You mention having it indoors in 'full sun'. Does this mean it could survive right up next to a South facing window? Not sure what full sun indoors means.

Thanks in advance,


mr_subjunctive said...


I am both still "into plants" and not. It's been weird.

In this post, yes, I meant "full sun" = next to a south-facing window, or "as much direct sun as a person with normal windows could expect to provide indoors."

The original A. victoriae-reginae seemed to do fine for me indoors in strong light; I can't remember for sure whether that was a south-facing window or not (the current house doesn't have many south windows, so it's unlikely). I know it seemed to be doing okay for a while toward the end under strong artificial light (i.e. multiple fluorescent tubes about 8 inches above the plant). What wound up killing that one was scale, not lack of light.

I bought a different one, identified as a cv. 'Pinguino,' in 2013 (it might have been given a different species name, like A. ferdinand-regis or something like that; I looked it up and decided it was probably an A. victoriae-reginae regardless), and that one's been in a very small south-facing basement window all that time and has only started to fall apart this winter. Again, I don't think lack of light was the problem; I think in this case it was that I continued to water it while it was right next to a window during a very cold winter, and the combination of cold and wet rotted the roots out. It's technically still alive, though pieces keep falling off and I'm not expecting it to continue to be alive for much longer.

So yeah, if your only concern is that you might not have enough light, that's probably not that bad if you have a south-facing window that's at least as tall as the plant. If you live somewhere with cold winters, maybe don't put the plant right next to the window in the winter, though.