Agave desmettiana

century plant


Agave desmettiana

Jacobi 1866

pronounced: uh-GAH-vee de-smet-ee-AH-nuh

(Asparagaceae — the asparagus family)

common names: century plant, smooth variegated agave

Agave is from the Greek αγαυος (agauos), noble, handsome, referring to the stature and general appearance of the flowers. Desmettiana was named for Louis De Smet (1813–1887), a Belgian botanist, who introduced this species to Europe.

Agaves originate from the arid regions of Mexico, but are now cultivated worldwide as ornamental plants. They have no stem, and the thick and massive leaves originate from a basal rosette. These leaves, in some species, can grow to nearly 2 m long, and to about 25 cm wide. Many varieties have sharp spines on the leaf margins, and most, including Agave desmettiana, have a sharp spike on the end of each leaf. They are commonly called ‘Century Plant’ because they take a long time to bloom – not a whole century, but usually about 10 years in tropical climates, and around 60 years in colder climates.

The flower stalks of some varieties can grow as tall as 8 m, but this one will reach only about 3 m. In Mexico and other parts of central America, dense hedges of the spiny varieties are often used as fences, being impenetrable to both animals and humans.

Agave dies after flowering, but the suckers produced at its base will continue growing, or may be transplanted. If the flower stem is cut before the flowers emerge, a sweet liquid called agua miel (honey water) gathers in the heart of the plant. This liquid from Agave tequilana is fermented and then distilled to produce the Mexican liquor Tequila. Mescal is produced in a similar manner from Agave americana. The leaves yield a fibre, known as pita, used for making rope, matting, and coarse cloth.

The thick leaves of Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ are light green, often with a light powdery-blue coating on top. Each leaf is edged with wide, horizontal bands of gold variegation that can catch the eye from quite a distance away. While generally smooth and soft, the leaf culminates with a reddish brown needle that can easily be cut off if the plant is growing close to a path.

The plant prefers well-drained soil and will thrive in either full sun or dappled shade. In partial shade the gold variegation tends to fade somewhat. Being fond of heat and humidity, plants quickly build up in size if provided with water and fertilizer on a regular basis. This is especially true if the plant is grown in a container, or in a bed with other plants.

For regions where the plant is fully hardy and where water is scarce, the smooth variegated agave is an excellent choice for drought-tolerant plantings. Once established, it will survive on very little water, require little maintenance, and will have few pests and diseases.

Photographs taken Picnic Bay 2009-2016, Nelly Bay 2016
Page last updated 1st October 2018