Century Plant “Agave Americana” Care

century plant
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A century plant is a flowering plant in the agave family, native to Mexico and the south-west United States. It is best known as Agave americana, and often referred to as the American aloe or century plant; however, there are many different species of Agave.

In gardens, they can grow to a considerable size due to their ability to flower and then quickly die off once they have flowered, leaving behind a giant bulbous root with several new offsets ready to be planted. The species sold in nurseries are usually quite small and fairly slow growing; most of those available in garden centers or specialized larger garden shops will have been grown from offsets left by an older plant.

The giant Agave plants are used for xeriscaping, large outdoor gardens provided with desert plant species and low-cost water catchment systems. Most agaves will tolerate a reasonable amount of foot traffic once established; however, movement should be kept to a minimum in the first two years while young plants get established and their root system becomes more extensive.

Planting an agave in your garden will establish a long-lasting drought-resistant plant that will not require much maintenance other than keeping it watered for the first year or so until it has established and become more drought resistant.

After this, you can treat it as any other garden plant, although regular watering is not necessary. All Agaves will flower and die once they have flowered but the timing is dependent on how long it has been since the last flowering, so the exact time it will live for in your garden will vary from one Agave to another.

Description of the century plant

century plant

The Agaves are native to deserts where rainfall is rare; an established plant can survive with just 250 mm (10″) of rain a year but plants will survive in much more arid climates and some species are hardy to -5°C (23°F).

Agaves are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species. The plant is toxic due to saponins, which have been found to be formed from components of fatty acid metabolism.

Turpentine can be made from the roots of Agave americana, and an insecticide used in organic gardens is extracted from the leaves.

Agave plants look similar to cacti; however, they are actually quite different botanically speaking. Cacti are succulents and store water in their fleshy stems, whereas Agaves store water in a large bulb which is used as a water reserve.

Cacti also have flat leaves which are often armed with spines for defense against herbivores; Agaves on the other hand possess stiff sword-like leaves that never have spines or thorns (though Agave americana does have small, hair-like spines when young that are soon replaced by the sword like leaves).

The sap of an agave has been shown to be a natural soap and can be used for washing clothes. The juice from the [young] shoots of Agave is also high in starch and this can also be made into alcohol – it is said to be the alcoholic equivalent of tequila.

Agaves have become popular as ornamental plants in many areas outside their natural range because they are extremely drought tolerant, easy to grow and provide a dramatic display with their flowering. They need full sun and look splendid planted in groups around patios or near swimming pools.

How to propagate century plant

century plant

Century plant can be grown from cuttings or by seeds to produce a new plant. It is best to select a strong stem when propagating your century plant, one with healthy looking leaves and joints. Stems should be at least 2 inches in diameter for the best results. Cuttings should be made from new growth of the year.

Seeds can usually be found in the fruit (look for the light brown “pepita” inside.) Plant these fresh seeds immediately to increase your chances of success. Seeds should be planted just under the soil surface.

Cacti and other succulents are propagated by removing a small piece of the stem. The plant will usually grow roots where this piece is planted. Place the cut end in a cup of water and put it on a windowsill for rooting. Once the cutting has rooted, plant it to the same depth as it was growing originally.

Plants can also be propagated from offsets or by dividing the fleshy stems into sections.

General care information of century plant

century plant

Light requirements

The century plant is a succulent, so it thrives in full sunlight. If you desire more blue-green foliage and less red coloration of the leaves, grow the plant in part sun or filtered light. The plant can tolerate some shade but will not be as colorful.

Century plants should be planted outdoors when danger of frost has passed but night temperatures are still cool.

If you plant too early, the roots may rot and die before the weather turns warm enough for growth to resume properly. If planting in a container, keep it well-watered until it becomes established. A dry soil will cause root rot during establishment.

Staked plants suffer from sunscald if grown in too much shade. If the leaves are turning brown, it means the plant is getting too much shade and needs more sun.

Soil

The century plant actually has no soil requirement, and can thrive in a variety of soils based on their pH. The higher (more alkaline) the pH, the faster the roots will grow. A very low pH will cause root burn and slow growth.  Century plants prefer slightly acidic soils that are porous and well-drained.

Century plant roots need good drainage to avoid root rot. If the soil is poorly drained, they are more likely to develop root problems such as rotting or stunted growth.

The best soils for clumping varieties of century plants are well-drained sandy loams with a slightly acidic (pH 6 – 7) pH.  Clay soils need to be amended with sand and peat.  If you are growing the century plant in a container, it is best to use a well-drained potting mix that has been fortified with plenty of perlite or vermiculite.

At least an inch of gravel mulch on top of the soil is recommended for proper drainage and easy maintenance.  Adding extra organic matter, such as compost or aged manure, will help create a larger soil volume to hold water without creating soggy conditions that lead to root rot.

The plant may need to be lifted every year during the fall and replanted in a freshly amended area of soil. Allowing the soil to be exposed to air and sun helps it dry out between waterings.  The more often you can supply water without allowing the roots to sit in soggy soil, the longer they will live.

Planting requirements

Century plant grow from a single large stem that produces hundreds of pups (new plants) from its base.  This characteristic can be used to your advantage when planting new plants by creating a natural barrier around the stem that prevents weeds and grasses from growing in the area.

New plants will form where each pup touches soil, so it is important for them to have contact with the ground at all times.

When planting your new plant, dig a hole that is twice the size of the root ball.  Plant deeper than it grew in its nursery pot, at least deep enough for all of the roots to be covered by soil.

You can bury a rock or other ornament at the bottom of the planting hole to help hold the plant upright. Use your fingers or a trowel to gently spread out the roots into the surrounding soil.

Mulch around newly planted century plant with at least an inch of gravel mulch to help create air pockets between the soil and mulch that can hold water for longer periods without becoming soggy.

A newly planted century plant will require weekly watering until it becomes established. Water deeply enough to completely soak the soil and allow drainage for at least a few hours, then allow the soil to dry between waterings. Once the plant is well-established, usually after one year or more of growth, it can be left unattended for several weeks without suffering any ill effects.

The parent plant needs even less attention once the new plants have rooted and grown large enough to provide their own shade and cover the soil (usually two years or more after planting).

Fertilization

Generally, century plants do not respond well to chemical fertilizers.  Adding organic matter such as composted manure will help provide slow-release nutrients. It is not necessary to fertilize the plant as long as it receives regular waterings, especially during periods of drought when its growth will slow down considerably.

Watering

Century plants are drought tolerant once established but will require regular watering. The most common signs of over watering is yellowing leaves towards the bottom of the plant and root rot.

If your century plant isn’t growing well, make sure that you aren’t overwatering it. Overwatering can sometimes cause a slow growth rate so be sure to check your plant every few days to see if it needs watering.

If you can’t tell whether or not the plant is getting enough water, stick a finger in soil up to your first knuckle. If it’s wet down there then leave the plants alone for now. If not give the plant some time and as soon as you feel that the soil is starting to get dry again, then water your plant.

Century plants prefer sitting in wet soil, but they don’t want the roots to drown so make sure it’s not sitting in a pool of water for too long. Just remember that the center of the plant will be much more sensitive to drought than its outer leaves. It can take years for the plant to reach maturity so don’t worry if it’s not growing as fast as you expected.

Century plants tend to have shallow roots that grow near the surface of the soil, which is why they’re so prone to over watering. To avoid this problem try setting some rocks or pebbles on top of your soil and then place the plant on top of those rocks. This will allow water to seep through the soil but not sit and drown your roots.

Temperature

Century plants do well in a home environment but don’t mind the colder temperatures that you’ll find outside.

In general, century plants prefer cooler soil around 55 degrees and warmer soil around 80 degrees. Popular gardeners will grow them in their basements or on patios so they can keep an eye on them at all times. If you don’t have a basement or patio, then try to keep your plant in the coolest and shadiest spot possible.

Century plants like it really hot, so make sure you place them somewhere where they’ll get enough sun. Although shade is preferred during hottest hours of the day, try not to set your plant in total darkness for more than two hours.

If you’re growing the plant indoors then you’ll want to keep your refrigerator at about 55 degrees and place the container on a linoleum floor. Make sure that it has plenty of ventilation so that it doesn’t get moldy or mildewy when sitting in there.

Don’t worry about not being able to see your plant, just make sure that the plant is not sitting in darkness.

Humidity

Although century plants don’t like mold, they do need high humidity to thrive. You can increase the humidity around your plant by placing a tray of water underneath it.

If you’re using trays make sure that there is no gap between them and the floor. This will prevent heat from escaping out into your room and keep your temperature more consistent.

Make sure you use distilled water in your trays, this will prevent any mineral build up and keep your plant healthy. If minerals do start to build up try rinsing under the faucet and placing the pot for a few minutes in a bath of distilled water.

Repotting

Century plants should only be repotted during the summer months. This will prevent root rot from the cold, wet soil which can sometimes happen in late fall or winter.

As soon as you feel your plant has grown too big for its container simply remove it from that pot and place it into a larger one with fresh soil (following the watering instructions above).

Pruning

One of the most important things to know about pruning is that you should never try it if your plant has brown leaves. Brown leaves mean that your plant is in a state of hibernation and trying to bring it out of this state can often kill it.

Most people will start to notice their plants dying after they’ve been outside for too long. If this happens then you’ll want to cut off the brown tips of your leaves and move it back into an indoor environment for the rest of the winter.

If you’re looking to trim some stray branches then feel free to do so anytime other than winter. Simply trim or prune as needed, but try not to remove more than 1/3 of your plant at a time.

Growth rate

Century plant are very slow growing, so don’t expect it to grow by more than a few inches every year. This doesn’t mean your plant is dying, they just take their time in reaching maturity. If you’d like to speed up the process then simply cut off a branch and put it into an indoor environment where it can continue its growth.

Hardiness zone

Century plants can grow outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 9a through 11b or as a houseplant anywhere that has sufficient light throughout the year. .

Pests and diseases

Century plants don’t have a lot of pests but there are a few insects out there that like to chew on their leaves. If your plant does get chewed up by something then you should place the affected leaf into some water and change it every day until the problem is resolved. You can also add a few drops of dish soap to the water but make sure it’s not too much, keep about one drop per cup.

Quick Tips – Summary

When trimming your plant make sure you protect the crown (the base) by tucking any cuttings into the dirt. This will help to prevent your plant from getting rotten or infected at that end of the stem which can lead to death.

If your leaves begin to shrivel and brown, then don’t worry, this is a natural state of hibernation that will keep your plant alive for many years.

During the summer months you can slowly increase the amount of water being poured onto your soil until you’re watering it almost daily. Just make sure to let everything dry out before watering again.

After about two weeks, your plant should be fully hydrated and ready to be repotted.


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