Sharklike Agaves: Why I’m Fond of Fangs

– Posted in: Succulents


I’ve gone from disliking thorny-edged agaves to loving them, because their leaves have embossed patterns that are fun to hunt for. I used to overlook such shadow lines. Now, the spikier the agave and the more wickedly fanged, the more I lean in for a closer look.

Finding shadow lines is like getting a plant to reveal its secrets. Take this trio of Agave colorata, for example. Do you see rick-rack lines that inner leaves have impressed on outer ones (and vice-versa)? Aren’t they cool?


With this Agave parryi, hard tissue pressing into soft created overlapping scallops that became permanent.


Look at how tightly immature leaves of Agave potatorum hug each other. I imagine the sound they make as they separate to be a series of staccato bursts, like rolling over bubble wrap. OK, the unfurling happens way more slowly. Still.


Agaves that once thrilled me, such as soft-leaved Agave attenuata–which is ubiquitous in Southern California gardens–now leave me vaguely unsatisfied. Sort of how I feel after eating celery, when what I really wanted was a cheeseburger. Perhaps I’ve become a horticultural carnivore.


A better common name for Agave bovicornuta (cow’s horn agave) might be zig-zag agave.


Savor these lacy shadow lines, then appreciate the red prickles. They remind me of an awakened cat’s exposed claws.


Agave americana (century plant), the most common agave in the Southwest, is capable of rude and prolific pupping. (I love the verb “to pup,” meaning to produce offspring from lateral roots. Pups literally pop up, often where you least want or need one.)

Agave americana has terrific shadow lines. This specimen grows in my own garden. I should never have planted it, but I’m a sucker for freebies, and it IS gorgeous. I approach it like a lion tamer, and so far it has been respectful. But I don’t turn my back on it.


Don’t these shadow lines make you sigh? I swear, few artists have painted anything so lovely. (This is mean Agave americana again.)


Agave macroacantha has blood-red teeth and faint shadow lines. It is one of the many new boutique (small) agaves ideal for pot culture.


And here is classy Agave marmorata. The fringe is as delicate as a baby’s eyelashes, the lines as subtle as the stitching on a good leather jacket.

So…do you agree that fanged agaves can make quite an impression?

More about the agaves shown here:
All do best in warm, dry (preferably not humid) conditions. Give full sun in all but desert areas and soil that drains well. If need be, amend potting mix half-and-half with pumice or perlite. Don’t let roots sit in water.
Agave americana (century plant). To 6 feet tall. Hardy to the mid-teens F.
Agave attenuata (foxtail agave). To 2-1/2 feet tall (when trunkless). Hardy to 32 degrees F.
Agave bovicornuta (cow’s horn agave). To 3 feet tall. Hardy to 25 degrees F.
Agave colorata. To 18 inches high. Hardy to 18 degrees F.
Agave macroacantha. To 18 inches high. Hardy to the mid-20s F.
Agave marmorata. To 4 feet tall. Hardy to the mid-20s F.
Agave parryi. To 3 feet high. Hardy to the mid-teens F.
Agave potatorum. To 2 feet high. Hardy to the mid-20s F.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
24 comments… add one

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RainGardener March 26, 2009, 4:52 am

They are truly amazing and beautiful. I wish we could have them here. I guess we could as houseplants? They are very fascinating. Thanks for the great post!

You can indeed grow agaves as houseplants. Many smaller ones have been introduced into the nursery trade over the past few years. Give them lots of light, and be sure to rotate the pot to ensure even exposure. Otherwise, the agave will lean. Debra

Lisa at Greenbow March 26, 2009, 6:22 am

What a delightful post. I have had a love affair with Agaves since I first discovered them. I have not been able to grow one in my area though. The list you have given lists a couple that I could try. I love the way you have described them in such a poetic way. I have always been intrigued by the shadow lines even though I didn’t know what they were called. I often wondered how they got there, now I know thank you.

Lisa, you’re now a member of the unofficial Agave Admirers club! Debra

Les March 26, 2009, 7:27 am

I love this plant and have several in pots that get taken in and out as the weather dictates. I have a hardy one that is going in the ground this spring. It is probably a good thing only a few are hardy for me or I would have a yard full of them.

Hi, Les! You bet, agaves can be addicting. And there are SO many intriguing species, from cabbage-sized to man-eaters. Debra

Joy March 26, 2009, 7:59 am

These are such amazing plants ! I really have a soft spot for them .. even with the fangs ? LOL
I haven’t met one yet , that I don’t like .. great pictures girl !

Thank you, Joy. I do think agaves appeal to sophisticated gardeners who appreciate subtlety—i.e. the beauty of foliage. Debra

Darla March 26, 2009, 10:01 am

They are very interesting plants. Great photos.

Hi, Darla. I’m so glad you enjoyed them! It was fun for me to share photos of plants that are dangerous yet beautiful. Debra

don March 26, 2009, 10:15 am

I was introduced to agaves through crossword puzzles. The clue is always century plant. Does that mean they live that long?

Beautiful photos and descriptions. I can feel the love…

Don, only Agave americana can rightfully be called “century plant,” although that’s often used as a generic term for agaves. The name comes from the fact that it seems to take a century for it to bloom, but actually, Agave americana forms a bloom stalk at age 15 to 20 (the more it’s pampered the quicker it’ll bloom). And then, sadly, it dies—all agaves bloom once and then die. Debra

Diane March 26, 2009, 11:25 am

Those are amazing pictures. I love plants that are feisty and pointy, and the embossing is an added bonus. I’ve been to Arizona a few times and admired the agaves greatly (and I even had the good fortune to be there during an extremely rainy spring so everything was in flower!). I remember when a century plant flowered at a greenhouse where I grew up in Illinois… it was a major news story and everyone went to see it. They had to open a pane of the roof to let it reach its full height.. so cool.

Hi, Diane — When an agave flowers, it IS an event. The bloom stalk often resembles a slender tree with short, widely spaced branches. With large agaves, the stalk gets as tall as a sailboat mast! Hmm. Maybe I should do a blog about agaves in bloom? Debra

Pam/Digging March 26, 2009, 12:31 pm

I love agaves and grow a number of varieties in my Austin garden. They fascinate me–the imprinting that you talked about, the needle-like spines, the jagged teeth, the cool blue or stripey yellow coloring, the architecture of their form. They’re absolutely wonderful. Great photos, by the way.

Hi, Pam — Hey, I was in Austin last week and had the pleasure of meeting the president of your local Cactus & Succulent Society and touring his garden—which not surprisingly includes some great agaves. You have a terrific website, and I love the fact that you’re growing mangaves—cool new hybrids of manfredas and agaves. You grow, girl! Debra

Loree March 26, 2009, 3:33 pm

Debra you hit on my favorite things about these plants, the textures are fascinating and spiky is where it’s at! Thank you for posting your photos.

Hi, Loree! I’m so pleased you feel the same way. The sharp spines on agave leaf tips remind me of a beautiful woman’s long, manicured fingernails: They’re elegant, intriguing and intimidating. Debra

Barbarapc March 26, 2009, 5:29 pm

Thanks for this post – didn’t know very much about agave – the shadow lines remind me of some of the old single coloured-textured pottery and vases my grandmother used to have – very cool.

Hi, Barbara — What a great analogy! That’s just what the shadow lines look like, except with no glaze on the pottery. Tooled leather might be another comparison. You can feel the indentations if you run your fingertips lightly over the leaf surface. I wonder…do any other plants have embossed leaves? Debra

Steph March 27, 2009, 10:41 pm

I have a potted Agave victoriae-reginae that I got on a visit to Lotus Land….just love it, so pretty.

Agave victoria-reginae, indigenous to Mexico, was named after Queen Victoria. It’s a dark green artichoke with white lines on leaves that look faceted, and it has black terminal spines. It’s one of the loveliest small agaves, hardy to 10 degrees F. Debra

Heirloom Gardener March 27, 2009, 11:41 pm

I love those agave and I don’t have a single one in my garden. I must remedy that. Thank you for the inspiration.

Aha. I love it—another agave convert! Debra

jodi (bloomingwriter) March 28, 2009, 7:02 pm

They are fabUlous, Debra. They won’t grow outside here in Nova Scotia, but make good indoor plants. Or when I win that lottery and get my conservatory…;-)

Hi, Jodi — I’m so glad you like them! I love the photos on your blog taken indoors and out (what a lovely part of the world). Now, if someone should ask me if succulents grow in Nova Scotia, I’ll tell them “yes and no” and send them to your site. Debra

Yvonne Cunnington March 30, 2009, 12:21 pm

Great photos. I love these spiky plants too, even though they are not hardy for us. We keep them under a light in the basement all winter and then bring them outside for the summer. It’s work, but really worth it.


Hi, Yvonne. I love the recent post on your blog that shows how to move a spiky agave. Whatever you’re doing to keep those agaves happy certainly works well…they’re some of the sassiest I’ve seen!

Cecily Jenkins April 3, 2009, 8:48 pm

Hi Debra!

You captured the visual beauty of these sometimes beastly specimens so wonderfully, and aspects of their character with equally beautiful poetic lines. I just last weekend purchased a little agave that caught my eye in the gardening center – Agave ‘blue glow’. Thanks for sharing….

Hi, Cecily! Agave ‘Blue Flame’ was hybridized in our own backyard, so to
speak—it’s a Rancho Soledad introduction. (Cecily and I both live in San
Diego County, and she has a wonderful dry fountain planted with succulents
in her front yard.) Debra

Germi May 4, 2009, 8:21 pm

Debra, you are a wonder!
Thank you for this beautiful post, which I came to FAR too late to be decent! Like many others, I am such a sucker for Agaves, and can’t get enough of people talking about and photographing them! Keep up the amazing work – you know I am a huge fan…
Ivette Soler aka The Germinatrix

Debra Lee Baldwin May 4, 2009, 9:05 pm

Well, hello there Ivette! Hey everyone, “Germinatrix” Ivette Soler’s design work is shown in my book, “Designing with Succulents”, and her beautifully orchestrated blog is well worth a visit, especially for those of you who live in SoCA. — Debra

chuck b. October 23, 2009, 3:14 pm

I’ve avoided having any armed plants in my very small garden, but I have place on my roof where an Agave or two are perfect because I can look at them without having to physically interact with them. The eye loves to follow the lines of the plant up and down and around. Visually, they are very exciting plants.

Hi, Chuck — I agree! I feed my agaves a gardener once a year to keep them pacified. Seriously, I recommend getting long-handled tweezers to use to keep small potted agaves tidy. Use them to reach into the leaf axils to remove debris (in my case, pine needles from the neighbor’s tree). Debra

Germi November 3, 2009, 10:52 pm

DEBRA! I swoon, I faint, I die! What a lovely ode to the beautiful and dangerous! … and I for one DEMAND a little danger with my beauty.
I have been looking for A. marmorata, even though I have no room for her, with 19 agaves in my little garden, I’m fairly maxed out. But who cares! You have whet my already ravenous appetite for my favorite plants … I must have more! Thanks for the lovely post extolling the wonders of the spine! I am in TOTAL agreement!

Oh, Germi, you delight me. Your passion comes through in this comment and always in your own blog, which I highly recommend. And you’re a hoot on Twitter @thegerminatrix. Debra

Dee/reddirtramblings November 4, 2009, 10:43 am

The more fanged the better, until I have to replant. 🙂 ~~Dee

I agree. Wear thick gardening gloves. And only grow small agaves! Debra

Kerry Michaels November 4, 2009, 10:48 am

What a spectacular post! Your photographs are not only stunning, they make me see the plants in a different way, which is such a triumph in a picture.

Justin Hulse February 6, 2010, 11:07 am

I just wanted to thank you for sharing your exceptional photos on your blog. I’m a big fan of succulents and other water-wise plants and have had difficulty getting inspired.

Ahem. May I recommend my two books? They’ll rev you up! “Designing with Succulents” and “Succulent Container Gardens”. Debra

Billy Goodnick June 28, 2010, 5:22 pm

Debra: Thanks for sending the link to my Facebook page. I walk past those agaves everyday and finally thought to reach for my trusty little iPhone, but these images (and your amazing eye) really do them justice.

I very much admire your design aesthetic, Billy. Glad you liked the post! — Debra

Jane Auerbach June 28, 2010, 6:53 pm

Deborah, what gorgeous photos (as usual)! Agree that A. attenuata just lacks that sexy quality the bad boy agaves have (the ones that’ll rip your arm or slash your jeans if you’re not careful).

I fell in love with these bad boys–and still don’t have room for them in the garden, so they’re in pots scattered around where we (most of the time) won’t get speared.

Love how your photos show the variations not only in the leaves, but in the spine colors too. One of my favorites is the blue agave (Americana), which not only has deep leaf impressions, but visibly amazingly blue spines:

Thanks for a great article on these beautiful plants!

Hi, Jane — Your link is well worth clicking. Love your photography! I too have agave pups in pots in my nursery area, waiting to be planted (except I don’t have room). They’re like little sharks, nipping at me when I bend over them to tend other plants. — Debra

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