12/29/15: Another visit with agave expert Greg Starr at his Tucson nursery

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.



Ferocactus pilosus

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


Yucca queretaroensis

151229_Tucson_GregStarr_Agave-horrida-perotensis_0001 151229_Tucson_GregStarr_Agave-zebra_0001

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 schidigera


Agave shrevei

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Agave parrasana and Agave pelona


FRONT: Agave parrasana  BACK: Dasylirion acrotrichum

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LEFT: Agave multifilifera  RIGHT: Agave ovatifolia (3x)


Agave ovatifolia


Agave ovatifolia


Agave ovatifolia


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.


Agave albopilosa


Agave albopilosa


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 turneri


Agave azurea


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 chazaroi


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.


December 2015 Desert Trip index


  1. Oh, wow! A post to end all posts. I so much like everything I see here. Everything is so right. The right plant in the right place. He has done a magnificent job positioning them all. What fun to wander through. The plants and the person all look so happy. Your friend Greg is a true botanist. I did not know that IM Johnston collected in Mexico. He did a book on the San Gabriel Mountains here that I refer to constantly checking out rare plants like Mimulus johnstonii.

    1. Greg's done a lot of botanizing in the Southwest and Mexico and knows a lot of people. The world of botany is fairly small, I think.

  2. Wow! That is a wonderful collection, and how lucky that you got to see it up close. I also really like how he's worked in all the plants and rocks in the garden. Thanks for the inspiration (and book recommendation!)

    1. The rocks are right from Greg's property. I agree, I like how he's worked them into the plantings.

  3. I was waiting for this post and you didn't disappoint. I might need to plan a road rip just to nab Agave chazaroi!

    1. LOL, I'm glad I was able to deliver the goods.

      Yes, you need Agave chazaroi. Maybe several! Check out the larger specimens at the Desert Botanical Garden in this post.

  4. Agave albopilosa is now on my wish list. Your pictures are so vivid.

    1. Albopilosa is one of my favorite small agaves. Such a beauty. Too bad it's still so hard and expensive to come by.

  5. I was fairly certain you'd be ending this post by sharing a photo of your Agave albopilosa and I would then die of jealousy (tinted with happiness for you, of course). I'm also struck by the intense color of the Agave chazaroi seedlings. Are they really that bright green? (swoon) I think I might have to make a little side trip down to Tucson when we visit my brother in Phoenix later this year...

    1. My own A. albopilosa is in the backyard. I should check on it but it should be hardy. It's on a rack up against the house where it's fairly protected from the rain.

      Agave chazaroi really is that color--apple green, like a Granny Smith, possibly even more vibrant. Check out the larger specimens at the Desert Botanical Garden in this post.

  6. Incredible! I was in a "desert" nursery this weekend and it doesn't even come close to comparing with Greg's. I'm now officially in love with Agave colorata.

    1. I've seen many coloratas, and I have three or four myself, but the vast majority are not this nice. I'm hoping for seedlings from this giant form when it flowers--not that I want it to flower anytime soon.

  7. The banding on those coloratas is awesome. I saw chazaroi for sale several times, didn't get it, regret that, haven't seen it for sale since. That happens.

    What a fun visit you must have had. So many Agaves to examine. I am envious!

    1. Greg has some choice plants in the ground, that's for sure!

      I think A. chazaroi would do very well in your garden. It's such a striking plant.

      The next time you're in Tucson, go see Greg. I bet you'll quickly fill a box with goodies.

  8. Ay caramba, Gerhard, what a post. I LOL'ed at "hope never dies," but when I look at your photos, I dream of a home in Tucson. I'd give a toe for a colorata with that banding... and the saguaros, and the ovatifolias, and the barrels... can't wait to see it all in person. In the meantime, thank you for the excellent post and the great photos! They keep hope alive ;~)

    1. Hey, maybe a small group of us succulent fanatics will start an intentional gardening community in Tucson, LOL!


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