Friday, December 13, 2013

A visit with agave expert Greg Starr (Tucson, AZ)

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I love agaves. As you can see here, I have 50+ species and varieties in my collection, most of them in pots.

Before my Arizona trip, I contacted Greg Starr, author of the Timber Press book Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers and one of the country’s leading experts on agaves, and he graciously agreed to let me visit him at his home in Tucson. As expected, it ended up being a personal highlight of my trip.

You can read more about Greg in his book and on his website, but here’s a quick summary: Greg’s nursery has been in business since 1985 and he has been botanizing in Mexico for at least as long. Since 1990 his main focus has been on agaves, and he has visited many type localities in Mexico. In recent years he has been working on a book on the agaves of Baja California. He is also working on a second edition of his first book, Cool Plants for Hot Gardens (now out of print).

Greg lives west of town at the base of the Tucson Mountains. The scenery is straight out of an old western movie. Here are some photos I took on my way to Greg’s house:

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Tucson Mountains

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Stately saguaros in a lucky homeowner’s front yard

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Recently planted saguaro. I wonder how long it needs to be supported like that?

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The road Greg lives on

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Greg’s driveway

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Yucca rostrata and golden barrel cactus

Greg’s property is about an acre and encompasses both his house and his backyard nursery. Maybe half of the property is hardscaped, the other half is natural vegetation intermixed with agaves, yuccas and the occasional barrel cactus. I loved that “wild” section of Greg’s property.

But let’s start in front the house. Agaves everywhere. The most impressive plants here were Agave ‘Sharkskin’, the largest specimen I’d ever seen, and Agave ‘Burnt Burgundy’.

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Agave near the front door include ‘Sharkskin’ (center) and ‘Burnt Burgundy’ (right)

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Agave ‘Sharkskin’ (left) and ‘Burnt Burgundy’ (right)

I also loved how well these two Agave bovicornuta mix with the Dioon edule. This was confirmation that I did the right thing when I planted three Dioon edule ‘Palma Sola’ in our recently renovated driveway bed.

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Agave bovicornuta and Dioon edule

The four Agave guadalajarana in the next photo jumped out at me from a distance. Their leaves were extraordinarily blue to begin with, but against the yellow flowers they stood out even more.

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Agave guadalajarana; note the very blue coloration

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Agave guadalajarana

But almost from the get-go it was clear to me which agave species has a special spot in Greg’s heart: the whale-tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia). Two huge specimens dominated one corner of the front yard patio.

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Agave ovatifolia

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Agave ovatifolia

Others are planted in the “wild” portion of the property. Here you can really appreciate the natural variation in leaf color.

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More Agave ovatifolia

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More Agave ovatifolia, all grown from seed. Note the natural variation in color. The specimen on the left is much bluer than the others.

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Agave ovatifolia

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The bluest specimen in this cluster of Agave ovatifolia

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…a typical green specimen…

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…and one that’s somewhere in the middle

Agave ovatifolia was discovered in the 1980s by Texas nurseryman Lynn Lowrey, but it wasn’t formally described and named until 2001. Greg was instrumental in this undertaking. Check out Greg’s photos from the type locality in the Sierra Lampazos, Mexico, where Agave ovatifolia was first found. The plants are stunning!

Continuing our walk through Greg’s demonstration garden, we came across some lovely Agave parrasana, one of my favorites ever since spotting this glaucous beauty at the Ruth Bancroft Garden a few months ago.

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Agave parrasana, fairly blue

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Agave parrasana, much greener than the one above. Both are seed-grown, and the variation is natural.

Wherever I looked, there was something new to discover.

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Agave multifilifera

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Yucca rostrata and Agave parryi var. truncata

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Agave shrevei var. matapensis

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Bloomed-out Agave ocahui

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Agave shrevei

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Agave zebra

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The three plants in the foreground are hybrids from seed collected off Agave victoria-reginae; the plant behind them is from seed collected off Agave wocomahi in Sonora, Mexico

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Different view of the same agaves

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Agave colorata

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Yucca queretaroensis; the chicken-wire cage is protection against rabbits

Finally we came to Greg’s nursery, which consists of several hoop houses for more tender plants and many tables open to the elements (although they could easily be covered if needed).

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Greg grows all of his plants from seed, and there was a large selection of agaves, cacti and even non-succulent perennials (many of them had gone dormant).

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Here’s that batch of particularly striking Agave victoria-reginae I mentioned in my earlier post. I only picked one, which was a mistake. I should have gotten three or four.

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With Greg’s help I picked a total of eight plants to take home. If I had driven to Arizona instead of flown, I would have loaded up the trunk!

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Agave striata

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Yucca queretaroensis

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Bloomed-out Agave victoria-reginae, still beautiful even in death

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Agave cerulata ‘Goyo’s Ghost’. The leaves were almost white. Stunning!

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Variegated Agave ovatifolia; it goes by the name of ‘Flipper’. This one was not for sale.

And finally here is the one agave species everybody wants: Agave albopilosa. First discovered in 1997 but not described as a species until 2007, Agave albopilosa is found Mexico’s Huasteca Canyon at elevations of 3,000 to 4,500 ft. where it grows near Agave bracteosa, Agave lechuguilla, Agave striata, and Agave victoriae-reginae. Based on its native habitat, Greg expects Agave albopilosa to be hardy to at least the high teens.

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Agave albopilosa

Seed has only been available for a few years so all specimen in cultivation are still relatively young. For photos of mature plants, about the size of a soccer ball, see Greg’s book Agaves or this article (it’s in French but you don’t need to understand the words to enjoy the photos).

It is my understanding that Agave albopilosa is in tissue culture as we speak, so it should become more widely available in the years ahead.

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Agave albopilosa

Greg also has a great selection of star cacti (Astrophytum species). Many people who don’t generally like cacti are drawn to Astrophytum because of their beautiful form and their general lack of spines (yes, Astrophytum ornatum shown in the photo below does have spines but other species like Astrophytum asterias don’t).

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Star cactus (Astrophytum species)

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Astrophytum ornatum

Greg was a wonderful host: very friendly, eager to show me around, and bursting with a wealth of knowledge. Two hours flew by in a heartbeat!

It wasn’t until after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t taken a photo of Greg for this post. If you have any of his books, you know what he looks like from the jacket photo. If not, click here.

Greg sells smaller plants through his web site. I encourage you to check out his selection.

RELATED POSTS:

Arizona 2013 trip index

10 comments:

  1. What? Are you planning to move to Arizona? I remember all those lovely homes in the foothills with the natural landscaping and incredible architecture when I worked there in 1988 I think it was. But Tucson has a lot of ugly smog also. Great place to visit.

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    1. If I moved to another city, it would either be Portland or Tucson, but probably Tucson. I love the desert and how close Tucson is to Mexico. Yes, there's sprawl (I didn't notice smog) but no city is perfect--other than Davis, of course, LOL.

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  2. I'm so glad you got in touch with him and made the visit, maybe I'll follow in your footsteps the next I me I visit Tucson. Great photos too!

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    1. You definitely should! Greg would love to show you around. He's a very gregarious guy.

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  3. So cool to have met Greg Starr and have a personal tour of his garden and nursery! So many gems, each photo is a visual delight to any fan of agaves and succulents. Hopefully Agave albopilosa will be readily available here soon.

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    1. Another destination for you if you ever do the grand tour of California and the American Southwest :-).

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  4. I am pea-green with envy. That must have been so much fun!

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  5. How nice to meet him. What a great treat to see his beautiful Agaves!

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