Agave desmettiana, also known as the smooth agave plant, is an evergreen species of agave that lives in the deserts of North America. It’s native to Mexico and ranges from Sonora to San Luis Potosi and Nuevo Leon, but it can be found in other areas where it has been introduced by people, specifically Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
The plant was originally named Agave desmettiana because Dr. Pierre Joseph Desmet was the first to observe the plant growing in the wild in the late 1700s.
Agave desmettiana belongs to the family Asparagaceae, which are commonly referred to as lily plants. The species itself can grow in climates ranging from semi-arid tropical to warm subtropical environments with temperatures between 20°C and 30°C and rainfall between 700–1000 mm per year.
The smooth agave plant is a succulent shrub that’s native to southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. This plant has many uses, from its latex sap that can be used as glue and also as an alcoholic beverage called pulque, to its leaves that can be used in cooking and its roots that can be made into rope.
Origin and distribution
Agave desmettiana is a member of Agavaceae, an enormous and highly diverse family of more than 300 genera and 6,000 species found throughout tropical regions. The genus, also known as agaves, is one of around 50 genera that grow in Mexico and belong to the subfamily Asparaginae.
These plants are native to areas of Mexico between Pueblo Quemado and Mazatlan. Several varieties exist including Agave desmettiana var. albiflorus and Agave desmettiana var. huastecorum, although it’s not clear if these should be considered separate species or simply varieties within Agave desmettiana.
Native populations are most commonly found growing on limestone hillsides at elevations from 200-500 meters above sea level. It has been suggested that Agave desmettiana may have evolved from hybridization between two other members of its genus; Agave decipiens and Agave neomexicana, but there isn’t enough evidence to support such claims.
Agave desmettiana propagation
The species can be propagated by division or offsets. However, they must be dug up and moved while still small. They become increasingly difficult to move after reaching 1 m in height and 4 cm in diameter at maturity. These plants are slow-growing, but once established are long-lived.
Agave desmettiana propagation is also possible from seed; however, seeds of most agaves take a long time to germinate and grow into adult plants. Seedlings require 10–15 years before they reach flowering size. In addition, many agave species are not sexually compatible with each other and cannot be hybridized even if seed is available.
Many agave species produce large quantities of viable seed only every few decades. Some populations do not produce viable seeds for more than one generation per century. For these reasons, propagation by seed is rarely done in cultivation except as an experimental procedure for breeding purposes.
To prevent accidental mixing of genetic material and loss of genetic diversity, it is advisable to collect pollen from multiple unrelated individuals before sowing seed. It is also advisable to use pollinators that are physically separated from those used for collecting pollen.
Once collected, it should be stored frozen or refrigerated until it can be used.
When grown from seed without such precautions, offspring will usually exhibit traits inherited from their parents’ respective cultivars rather than their species’ wild form.
Agave desmettiana care information
Smooth agaves make a nice indoor plant and can tolerate low light levels. The long, sharp spines that run down their green leaves are pretty tough, so they aren’t ideal for kids or pets to play with. They don’t grow in soil; rather, these plants have fleshy roots called tubers that store water and nutrients. To keep your agave happy indoors, repot it into a pot with drainage holes at least once every three years.
Agave desmettiana requires at least four hours of direct sunlight daily. If planted in a sheltered spot, it will grow and thrive just fine, although it will take a little longer to establish itself and won’t produce as many flowers.
Sun protection is essential during cold months when nighttime temperatures fall below freezing, because plants can be damaged by frosts or freezes. They need frost-free conditions to grow properly, so bring them indoors if your area experiences prolonged periods of cold weather.
The soil should have good drainage. A cactus mix that is designed for succulents works great. They’re usually a little lighter in weight than potting soil and have less of an effect on water retention, so they dry out faster. In summer, you’ll need to water every three days or so; in winter once a week is fine.
If you notice your plant getting droopy, it may be time to water. You can also check by sticking your finger into the soil about an inch down, if it feels moist, don’t water it yet. If it feels dry, give it some water. Don’t let your agave sit in standing water either, this can cause root rot.
Like most succulents, Agave desmettiana plants are very easy to care for and require little water. Despite that, there is some controversy as to whether or not these plants will actually die if they don’t get watered occasionally. It seems that it may be better to err on the side of caution with watering your plant.
If you notice it starting to droop a bit, give it a thorough soak and see how it does after a week or so. If it doesn’t bounce back, you might need to consider repotting it in fresh soil.
Be sure to use a pot that is at least 3 inches larger than its current container; otherwise, when you transplant your agave into its new home, all of its roots could end up in one spot instead of spreading out throughout the soil. This can stunt growth and cause other problems down the road.
For container-grown plants, we recommend fertilizing three times a year. In spring, use an all-purpose fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen; in summer and fall, opt for an all-purpose, slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote.
Look for one with a 20–10–5 formula, the numbers represent percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), and potash (K), and water it in well after application. If you prefer to work by hand, there are many organic products on the market today.
Or try compost tea, fill a 5-gallon bucket with warm water and let it sit overnight. Then add 2 cups of compost or manure, 1 cup of molasses or sugar, 1/2 cup each worm castings and fish meal, plus 1 teaspoon each seaweed extract and alfalfa meal per every 10 gallons of water.
Moderate temperatures are required for germination and growth. Seedlings should be kept at 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit during their first month, with a temperature drop of 10 degrees every subsequent month until it reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit in year two. Mature plants require temperatures ranging from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Found in tropical and subtropical regions, agave is drought-tolerant, making it a good option for sunny and dry climates. Be aware that agaves require high humidity, so they may not be ideal for colder areas with low humidity.
In order to avoid rot, allow some of your plants’ leaves to remain on the soil after you cut them off. This will help slow down moisture loss during the winter months.
The ideal humidity range for Agave desmettiana is between 50 and 70 percent. In low-humidity areas, you can increase humidity by misting your plants daily or placing them on a pebble tray. In high-humidity areas, you may need to prune your agaves regularly to prevent rot.
A quick way to check for proper moisture levels is to dig up a plant’s roots; If they’re brown, it needs more water; if they’re white, it has enough moisture.
To keep an Agave desmettiana looking healthy and prevent it from becoming a monster, prune it on a regular basis. An easy way to remember when to prune is by thinking of your agave as a living sculpture; Every so often, take a look at it, and if you see that one branch is starting to get longer than others or starts growing out of proportion with respect to other branches or stalks, grab your shears and snip away.
It’s best to do this in late winter or early spring, the plant should be dormant during these months anyway, so there’s no risk of damaging any new growth. Just make sure to wear gloves and long sleeves, since agaves have sharp edges!
When to repot
Although smooth agaves aren’t typically repotted until about five years of age, it is often recommended to repot them annually during their first year of growth. This will allow them to become accustomed to transplanting and help set their root system before it becomes established.
Additionally, each time you repot your Agave desmettiana plant, it will give you an opportunity to check for any insects or diseases that may have been hiding inside. Afterward, begin checking for root rot every two years.
In milder areas where frost does not occur, Agave desmettiana can be left outside year-round. However, most will experience some freezing temperatures in their natural environment and as a result, require winter protection.
To achieve dormancy/winter rest indoors, keep agaves in a cool place at night (mid to high 50s Fahrenheit), and bring them inside during colder days of winter.
They should also be kept out of direct sunlight. If you have an area that gets no sun but stays above freezing, that is ideal for overwintering plants. Keep them moist but not wet while dormant; you may need to water once or twice if it’s particularly cold and dry where you are located.
Be sure to move your plant back outside when warmer weather returns in springtime.
Agave desmettiana flower & fragrance
The smooth agave plant is a close relative of tequila, from which it gets its name. It produces large, yellow-orange flowers that smell like honey. The flowers have a strong fragrance and grow on a stalk about 3 feet tall.
Once pollinated, each flower will produce one to two dozen oval fruit called piñas that grow about 4 inches long. A pina will weigh 2 to 5 pounds when ripe, depending on cultivar and growing conditions.
Agave desmettiana has a slow to medium. It grows faster when young and when planted in full sun. When mature, it can grow up to 6 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but it is more likely to stay between 3-5 feet tall depending on climate and soil conditions.
All species of agaves can be toxic to pets and people if ingested. It is important that pet owners keep plants out of reach. If a person or animal has eaten any part of an agave, take them to a doctor or veterinarian immediately. According to Cornell University, common symptoms include dizziness, staggering, abdominal pain, weakness, and even shock.
USDA hardiness zones
Agave desmettiana thrives best in USDA hardiness zones 9 through 11. In these warmer climates, it can grow to a height of 15 feet and spread as wide as 30 feet. However, if you live in an area with a shorter growing season, you may want to choose another agave species.
The smooth agave is extremely cold-hardy and can survive temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It will lose its leaves during colder months but will regrow them once spring arrives.
Pests and diseases
Agave desmettiana can sometimes be susceptible to problems from pests and diseases. Diseases can manifest in a number of ways, including blackening, soft rot, and a leaf or stem blight. Insect infestations are also common for agaves but typically come in the form of mealybugs or aphids that feed on plant sap.
Treating an infestation generally involves spraying down infected plants with a mixture of water and insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.
The smooth agave is a unique species of agave native to desert regions of southern and central Mexico. In some respects, it is a close relative of tequila and mezcal, but it does not contain alcohol in its natural state.
Most known for its showy flowers, which bloom during late summer, it can be cultivated in USDA zones 8 through 11. While Agave desmettiana sap may be used as a sweetener or fermentable material for producing ethanol, most remain unaware that they are growing an exotic plant.