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Gardening 101: False Agave

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Gardening 101: False Agave

July 12, 2022

False Agave, Furcraea 

Mill Valley, where I live, is known for its mild temps but after a recent spate of heat waves that left my perennials curled up, crispy, or wilted (despite being hydrated and well-established), I came to really love and appreciate all the succulents and cactus in my garden. The sun blasted and baked, and these stalwarts were like, “You call this heat? Whatever.” I was amazed that they not only survive but thrive in blazing sun and high temperatures because of how they have adapted to storing water and reducing transpiration. I need more of these nonplussed sun worshippers in my and my client’s gardens. And one type I’m considering adding to my plant posse is False Agave.

Please keep reading to learn more about the plant that you might also want to consider.

Above: A potted Furcraea foetida in a SF garden (for more of this garden, see Designer Visit: A Garden Hidden in SF’s Mission District, by Daniel Nolan). It’s the most commonly grown variety and was once cultivated as a hemp fiber plant on Mauritius Island, which explains why its common name is Mauritius Hemp. This succulent can grow to 5 feet tall, with an impressive spread to 8 feet. Long, wavy, sword-shaped leaves are relatively spineless (making maintenance less risky.) Flower stalks shoot upward with scented flowers. Following the flowers, tiny plantlets cover the inflorescence. Also know that when you prune the leaves they are a bit smelly (foetida means stinking.)

Native to South America and the Caribbean, this group of plants can easily be mistaken for Agaves (thus the common name). What separates them is that False Agaves produce bulbous-shaped flowers while Agave flowers are bell-shaped. Also, over 200 Agave species exist and only 23 Furcraea species are out there. These Agave lookalikes are characterized by thick, stiff leaves and some have thick stems while others are stemless. Also, the asparagus-like flower stalks can grow to an impressive 40 feet in some varieties.

Hardy to between 20 and 30 degrees F, False Agaves are prized by designers and plant collectors who are looking for year-round statement plants. And while they are most adapted to arid garden designs, you can work them in to different types of gardens even if you don’t live in the desert. The one thing to obviously consider is that some of these stately beings demand a large garden so they can reach their ultimate impressive size.

Choose your spot wisely—once established, they can be tricky to relocate. Consider using just one specimen to anchor a bed as a dramatic focal point. Another option is to mass plant them if ample space is available. Of course, one plant in a large pot totally works, too. False Agaves are easy to care for and drought tolerant, making them a top contender for the garden.

Cheat Sheet

A Furcraea gigantea &#8\2\16;Variegata&#8\2\17; by Megan Hansen via Flickr.
Above: A Furcraea gigantea ‘Variegata’ by Megan Hansen via Flickr.
  • False Agaves make striking focal plants in large containers, either planted alone or underplanted with other low water plants.
  • These striking beauties also blend into xeriscape, modern, tropical, and cactus/succulent gardens.
  • Rocky hills are top spots to plant these easy plants as any excess moisture runs off and doesn’t collect near them, plus they help control erosion.
  • Scented flowers attract bees and butterflies.
  • Deer and rabbits, fortunately, are not fans of these plants.
  • Some people find the sap irritating, so make sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning.

Keep It Alive

One of my favorite False Agaves: Furcraea macdougalii. Totally impressive, dramatic, and architectural. Six-foot-long blue-green narrow leaves shoot stiffly skyward. Eventually this beauty forms a trunk up to about \10 feet. Sun- and very heat- and drought-tolerant. Photograph by Drew Avery via Flickr.
Above: One of my favorite False Agaves: Furcraea macdougalii. Totally impressive, dramatic, and architectural. Six-foot-long blue-green narrow leaves shoot stiffly skyward. Eventually this beauty forms a trunk up to about 10 feet. Sun- and very heat- and drought-tolerant. Photograph by Drew Avery via Flickr.
  • They tolerate a range of light from blasting sun to filtered light, depending on the variety.
  • Water infrequently as they are xerophytic (a great word meaning adapted to surviving with little or no water for extended periods of time.)
  • Always make sure the drainage is top notch before planting. If questionably soggy, amend your soil with handfuls of sand or other gravelly material.
  • Accepts but doesn’t crave fertilizer to look its best. If you choose to feed them, use one formulated for succulents.
  • Be aware that these plants are monocarpic (another great word meaning the mother plant dies after flowering.) The good news is that it can take many years before it reaches that unfortunate end of life stage; plus if the baby plantlets reach moist soil they can reproduce.
  • Prune away any damaged or tired-looking blades. I use a hand saw to do this job.

For other succulents we love, see:

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