Tucson is the home turf of Greg Starr, one the world’s leading agave experts and the author of what I think is the best book on agaves in print, Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers (Timber Press, 2012). Greg’s first book, Cool Plants for Hot Gardens (Rio Nuevo, 2009), is out of print but he’s actively working on a completely overhauled and expanded second edition.
I had first visited Greg on my December 2013 trip and was excited to see him again on my most recent trip to Tucson. Greg and his wife Carol live in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains on the west side of town surrounded by scenery that reminds me old westerns.
This is what I saw as I was approaching their house:
Could it get any more iconic?
Even though this is a subdivision, Greg’s house (all the way on the left in the next photo) is on a dirt road. This adds to the away-from-it-all feel.
Greg’s property is one acre. If I ever move to the desert (hope never dies), this would be the property size I would be looking for: large enough to give me room to garden with abandon, yet not so large that I would feel overwhelmed.
Greg’s house from the road. The frost cloth on the left protects his citrus trees.
Now I’m in Greg’s driveway looking towards the road.
I like the balance Greg struck in these plantings: Clearly he hand-selected each plant, but the overall look is less like a rigidly managed garden and more like a natural landscape. I’ve encountered this style of landscaping in many places in Arizona, and it really speaks to me.
The feature I noticed immediately when looking at the front of the house is the rainwater cistern on the left. They’re common in Tucson (I believe Greg has several) but still a rarity in California. My 55-gallon plastic rain barrel is a joke compared to this.
Greg and I are such plant nuts that it barely took five minutes before we were looking at agaves. He has a lot of species planted in the ground, and I could tell how much they’d grown in the two years since my previous visit.
Two Agave colorata showing distinct differences in size and coloration
Greg with Agave colorata (the larger one in the photo above)
CENTER: Variegated Agave salmiana RIGHT: Agave parrasana. The wire cages are to protect smaller plants from rabbits and javelinas.
Possibly Agave montana × gentryi
LEFT: Agave horrida var. perotensis and Agave colorata RIGHT: Agave zebra
Another Agave zebra, this one with larger, more widely spaced teeth
Agave parryi var. truncata
Agave vizcainoensis, a species from Baja California (and Gerhard and Greg’s shadows)
Agave schidigera at the base of Yucca rostrata
Agave parrasana and Agave pelona
FRONT: Agave parrasana BACK: Dasylirion acrotrichum
LEFT: Agave multifilifera RIGHT: Agave ovatifolia (3x)
Greg with Agave ovatifolia
There are a lot of whale’s tongue agaves (Agave ovatifolia) on Greg’s property. This species, one of the largest and easily one of the most beautiful in the entire agave kingdom, has a special place in Greg’s heart. 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. Greg hopes to lead a field trip to Mexico next year that includes the Sierra Lampazos location; I’m very tempted to come along.
Here a few more photos of the plantings near the driveway:
After an hour of yakking, we finally made it to the nursery. It occupies about 1/3 of the backyard. The outside tables were covered with frost cloth and I wasn’t able to inspect those treasures.
But the greenhouse more than made up for it.
While at first glance it may seem there isn’t that much, there is more than you think. Believe me. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon checking everything out.
Greg with one his prized Agave albopilosa
Agave albopilosa is a fairly recently described species that is completely unique: Each leaf ends in a small tuft of white hair. (In small plants, the “hairs” aren’t fully developed yet.) Seed has been available for several years but larger plants are still rare and pricey.
Flowering Agave ‘FO-76’ in the corner of the greenhouse. Greg says this plant never got regular irrigation, just some overspray, and yet it still managed to survive.
At this point I should mention that Greg isn’t “just” a plant nerd like so many of us. His background and knowledge goes far beyond that. He has a B.S. in horticulture (1979) and an M.S. in horticulture with a special emphasis on botany (1985), both from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He started Starr Nursery in 1985 and has been growing specialty plants ever since.
In recent years, his research has been focused on the agaves of Baja California. After many field trips to Mexico, he coauthored the definitive paper on this subject in 2015 together with Robert Webb, the co-owner of Arid Lands Nursery in Tucson: Webb RH & Starr G (2015). Gentry Revisited: The Agaves of the Peninsula of Baja California, México. Haseltonia 20: 64-108. (You can buy this issue of Haseltonia on the CSSA web site or download it from here if you have a BioOne account.)
Greg is growing many Baja agaves from seed he collected in the field. If you live in zone 9b and above, you’ll have no problem growing these in the ground.
Agave parryi seedlings, grown from seed collected from the Sierrita Mountains about 30 miles south of Tucson. Greg says he’s not sure yet what variety they are. He’s growing plants from four separate collections from Tucson south to the border.
Here are four Baja species in the greenhouse:
Agave sobria, “pseudogigantensis” form
Agave carminis. Explanation from Greg, just to give you an idea of what he’s interested in: “The agave labeled Agave carminis is from Isla Carmen and was initially described as a distinct species by William Trelease in 1912, but later reduced to synonymy under A. sobria by Ivan Johnston and that was followed by Gentry as well. I hope to have DNA run on the whole A. sobria complex and see if A. carminis and others described by Trelease, but later reduced to synonyms of A. sobria, are distinct enough to warrant recognition either as species or subspecies. The first step was to collect seed (check), then grow the plants (check), now get the DNA run.”
Here are a few other rarities in the greenhouse which, in hindsight, I should have picked up to trial for hardiness in Davis:
Agave valenciana, a giant from the state of Jalisco in Central Mexico that can grow to 5-7 feet tall and 10-12 feet in diameter
Agave chazaroi, another species from Jalisco. To me it looks like Agave attenuata crossed with Agave pelona, but of course that’s not a scientific statement. Agave chazaroi is a recently described species (2007) that appears to be quite cold-sensitive.
Agave petrophila, another newly described species in the Striatae group that isn’t very hardy. I bought a plant from Greg a couple of years ago and it’s proven to be a fast grower in a pot (protected in the winter). I find it to be very attractive.
Agave nuusaviorum, recently split from Agave potatorum. Not much is known about it at this point.
Agave nuusaviorum, Agave carminis and others
Greg is about the nicest guy you could hope to meet. If you’re ever in Tucson, don’t hesitate to contact him to see if he’s around. He has a large variety of plants for sale and would be happy to meet with you.
In the meantime, you need to check out his book Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers if you haven’t already. It really is that good.
And if you’re interests are more far-reaching, I can highly recommend the Field Guide to the Cacti and Succulents of Arizona published by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society. Greg is one of the coauthors.