Fox-tail is found throughout the west side of the gardens in planters around the Great Lawn. It grows on a curving stem that can reach up to five feet with additional rosettes forming and rising around its base. This makes it a unique addition as it can add height to garden spaces. The leaves are very soft with smooth margins, though occasionally they may grow small, serrated teeth. They can grow in color ranges from pale green to blue-green.
The inflorescence (blooming stem) has a distinctive curve that grows up, and then bends down and then up again. The curving pattern is where it derives its name, as it resembles a foxtail. The blooms pack densely along the stem and bloom a pale green between December and January. Collection of seed and offsets are the most common cultivation method.
Distribution in Mexico is at higher rocky ranges around 6,000 feet. Fox-tail is considered rare outside of cultivation. There are few locations where it currently grows. According to Mary Irish, it was first described from cultivars grown in Europe that were collected in the 1850s from an unknown location in Mexico.
Care should be taken as Fox-tail can be lost to frost. On temperate coasts, it can do well in the sun, but not in the hotter desert regions where it may be too much.
The Century Plant, or americana, is the largest agave in the gardens. It’s variable in color, ranging from green to blue-gray, and some varieties displaying variegated leaves. This species is the iconic representation of the genus selected by botanist Carl Linnaeus. It can grow up to 10 feet. The long leaves can recurve dramatically, and leaf margins display brown teeth.
The name Century Plant refers to the monocarpic (one bloom) nature of the genus, where blooms occur only after several years, sometimes up to 30 years, though it may seem like a century for some to bloom.
The inflorescence (flowering stalk) can reach up to 26 feet with 15 to 35 branches on the upper third of the stem. The blooms are yellow and appear in summer. The bloom cycle is dependent on climate and in warmer regions may happen at around 10 years. In cooler climates, it may take up to 35 years to bloom. The plant will die after that bloom but has likely produced many clones around its base in the meantime.
Its distribution is uncertain but widespread.
There is only one garden bed at Sunnylands with this agave. It is in the very back of the southwest side of the gardens. You will find it behind the Great Lawn, just next to a bed of distinctive euphorbia called Moroccan Mound. In fact, you would be better to locate the Moroccan Mound first. Then with your back to the Center, glance slightly to the right, and you will find Gentry. When you find it, you will realize it was worth the search. It is a standout.
When the gardens were installed, there were few Gentry available and normally that would have excluded it as a choice. But instead the decision was made to offer Gentry a single bed where visitors could observe it on its own merits.
It is very clear why it is referred to as Chalk Agave when you see its dusty blue skin. It is also difficult to look at it without thinking of the giant carnivorous plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors. With leaf margins covered in a crazy display of unkempt fangs, instead of the uniformed teeth of more dignified agaves, it does have a strong creature-feature appearance.
The creative gardener could utilize this plant when arranging this specimen in beds that are more focused on visual interest than botanical highlights. At 2 feet, its chalky appearance is a wonderful contrast to other plants with deeper glossy colors. It can be propagated by seed, or its offsets (clones) can be collected and replanted. Like other agave, it will bloom once at end of life, but has not yet done so at Sunnylands.
Another species that may not be immediately recognizable as an agave is the A. geminiflora. Having attributes including filaments along its margin, instead of teeth, may cause it to be confused with Hesperaloe, which has this similar feature. The leaves are very narrow and flexible. As it grows, a stem will begin to form below its rosette of 200 densely placed, and curved leaves.
The name Twin-flowered or geminiflora describes its paired flower display. Its blooms are yellow with a red flush that grow at the top of a spike that can rise up to 12 feet. This bloom will happen once at end of life. Offsets and bulbils are rare, so propagation is mostly by seed.
Its origin is the Mexican state of Nayarit, with its range at elevations between 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Very susceptible to cold, it needs protection from frost, even in the low desert, but in general can tolerate some shade.
In two specimen beds at the south side of the Center, there are a few small, very decorative Thorn-crested Agave. Normally this variety grows to a maximum of about 2 feet, but there are many hybrids of various sizes and colors. The variety at Sunnylands is ‘quadricolor,’ meaning its leaves display four colors. There are three distinct shades of green striping on the leaves that are framed with red teeth along the margins.
When planted in full sun, you will see a pink blush. This is a process which is visible in other desert species as well. You may notice it particularly on succulents. As part of the photosynthesis process, green chlorophyll in plants is the mechanism that captures light and converts it to food, but too much sunlight can also damage cells. Turning off some of those light receptors can protect plants. This pink blush is one photo-protective mechanism that reduces the plant cell damage from sun exposure. In the case of agaves, it has been attributed to the presence of Anthocyanins (flavonoid pigments) within the plant’s tissue. The exact process and triggers are still being explored. For aloes, the mechanism is due to the presence of rhodoxanthin (see Medicinal Aloe).
A native of the United States and Mexico, Thorn-crested Agave is found in the wild at elevation ranges between 100 and 5,000 feet.
At maturity, it sends up a 12-foot spike that forms yellow-green blooms. As an agave, it will bloom once at end of life. However, during its lifespan it will have also produced offsets, which are clones of itself, often referred to as pups. So in addition to propagation from flowering, the clones can be replanted as well. This species has not yet bloomed at Sunnylands.
Some Smooth Agave began blooming within a season of their planting. In order to ensure that the Center & Gardens would look established on opening day in 2012, some more mature specimens were used. For the agaves, this meant they would be closer to blooming. The first specimen began to bloom in 2013 and additional ones have continued blooming each year since. This has offered visitors the opportunity to see blooms each season, which is great for the experience but results in the necessity of replacement of individual plants.
The Smooth Agave sends up a thick, branching stalk that blooms bright yellow and then forms bulbils (small, fully formed plants), which can be replanted. Smooth Agave does not exist in the wild but is common in cultivation and its offsets form early, so replanting is not difficult.
It has been found to be cold sensitive and die off of lower leaves immediately after a frost is possible.
Not just a fun name, Sharkskin, with its thick, triangular leaves, is a visually appealing, and sturdy agave. Its name comes from the textural feel of its skin that resembles the feel of shark skin. Described as “stout” or “muscular” due the thickness of its leaf base, it maxes out at 3 feet in height. To some it may look like just another agave, but to those who look for slight variations among varieties, it is distinctive.
Sharkskin is pest resistant. It has proven to be a low maintenance selection at Sunnylands, and due to its lack of a finicky nature, so it does well throughout the gardens.
Its origin is Mexico as a hybrid of A. ferdinandi-regis form of A. victoriae-reginae.
This is the description for Parry’s Agave, but there is also an Agave parryi var. ‘truncata.’ For this variety, please see Artichoke Agave.
The Parry’s Agave is a small, neatly designed variety with elliptical leaves arranged in a tight rosette. It is one of the more common agaves in the garden. It can colonize forming offsets around its base. So, in addition to seed collection, these clones can be collected, and at Sunnylands they are harvested for future specimen replacements. It is a perfect companion for wildflowers and perennials in desert gardens, but is equally successful in groupings of several Parry’s Agave. It is one of the most cultivated species for low-desert gardens.
Parry’s Agave grows an inflorescence (flowering stem) that may rise up to 20 feet, extending branches that will hold bright yellow flowers, touched with red or pink.
It’s origins include Arizona, New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango at an elevation range between 1,500 and 8,000 feet, but it has done equally well on the desert floor. The vast range of this species allows it to thrive in many locations.
Murphy’s Agave was not included in the original design plan in 2012. It was brought in later as a test to replace the more frost-tender Smooth Agave in some of the shaded garden beds. Due to high temperatures in the Coachella Valley, it does well in these shaded sections, but in colder areas it will require full sun. At Sunnylands, you can find it north of the Center under Palo Brea trees. It shares the urn-like shape of the Smooth Agave, but having fewer offsets than the Smooth Agave it needs less maintenance to keep its urn-shape visible.
Its stalk can grow to 13 feet, displaying bright yellow blooms tipped with purple. It rarely sets seeds but does set bulbils after it blooms. These can be collected and replanted.
Murphy’s Agave is native to the rocky slopes of central Arizona at elevation ranges between 1,500 and 3,000 feet.
The Desert Agave is a medium-sized agave with upright, rigid leaves ending in a strong terminal spine at its tip. It can be found in the lower gardens south of the entry drive, or to the right of the drive if you are standing with your back to the Center.
A local desert native, it is planted throughout the gardens as part of the original landscape design. Gradually rising temperatures in the desert, along with a reduction of winter chills lasting long enough to keep pests at bay, resulted in the struggle of some plants in the first few years. After becoming established, the current Desert Agave specimens are doing well, with some having completed their bloom.
The inflorescence (flowering stalk) can reach up to 13 feet with bright yellow blooms, but this occurs at end of life usually between 15 and 20 years of age, and the plant will die shortly thereafter, leaving the next cross-pollinated generation to move forward.
In front of the Center, in the middle of the motor court, is a medallion-shaped bed where specimens of Cowhorn Agave are arranged among Golden Barrel cactus in a black scoria (lava stone) mulch. The margins of the Cowhorn’s leaves display reddish-brown teeth in a dimorphic (two-style) growth pattern. The teeth are both straight and curved, which results in a “snaggle-toothed” appearance. This is a contrast to some other agaves, which have a somewhat more uniform margin. Cowhorn is also found along the entry drive near the Bob Hope gate, but safe, close-up viewing is best done at the motor court.
This native of Mexico grows wild within an elevation range of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. Cowhorn Agave has not yet bloomed at Sunnylands. It will bloom only once, at end of life—usually between 12 to 18 years. The spike can reach over 20 feet, displaying greenish-yellow flowers.
This species does very well on the desert floor. Though it is more likely to be harmed by frost, it can be light sensitive during high-summer heat.
The variety of Caribbean Agave at Sunnylands is ‘marginata,’ and its name refers to the striped margins of its leaf edge. It is in the specimen beds closest to the solar field. Late in life, it will begin to grow a stem that raises a rosette of leaves off the ground. Often this happens right before the plant blooms.
When it does bloom, this final act will require all of the energy it has been storing during its life. It will send up a 16-foot branched stalk that will bloom and then set bulbils (small, fully formed plants). These can be collected and propagated. If left alone, they will tumble down to root around the parent or blow off to bloom elsewhere and begin a new colony. Earlier during its life, it will also have grown offsets or clones that can replanted. In the wild, it may form a colony of these cloned versions of the parent plant. It is possible that the parent plant will be long gone from older colonies.
This is a native of northern Mexico, but it has an extensive range with varieties as far south as Costa Rica.