Octopus agave spreading the love at the Huntington

Agaves are very adept at reproducing. Many species grow pups or offsets as a matter of course, most produce copious amounts of seed after blooming, and some go even further: They generate identical copies of themselves that emerge as tiny plantlets along the flower stalk. These plantlets, commonly called “bulbils,” detach themselves from the inflorescence once they've reached a certain size, drop to the ground, and—with any luck—root and continue the cycle. 

One such species is the octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana). In milder areas of California, this is a popular landscaping plant because it grows fast and has unarmed rubbery leaves with only a weak terminal spine. And it's attractive, especially in mass plantings. 

When the Huntington remodeled its entrance complex in 2013-2015, they planted large quantities of Agave vilmoriniana in the green area separating the parking lot from the entrance plaza. They look happy as can be, growing under California pepper trees (Schinus molle) and surrounded by expanses of European gray sedge (Carex divulsa).

Agave vilmoriniana surrounded by European gray sedge (Carex divulsa)

Since Agave vilmoriniana tends to flower quite young, often as early as 5-7 years, I wasn't surprised to see this when I visited the Huntington a few weeks ago:

Let me qualify that: I wasn't surprised to see an octopus agave with bulbils. But I'd never seen an inflorescence bent over all the way to the ground. 

In fact, I think the bulbils at the top of the flower stalk have rooted already. Typically, these bulbils are the smallest since they get the least amount of energy from the mother plant. Here, they look like they've definitely grown.

Another octopus agave nearby had a much shorter flower stalk which had snapped in two:

The odds of bulbils rooting must not be very high because agaves favoring this method of reproduction typically create hundreds, if not thousands, of identical copies of themselves. This is good for humans because bulbils are an easy and cheap way of landscaping a larger area. 

However, there can be too much of a good thing. Maybe the Huntington's garden staff has reached the point of saturation; I certainly didn't see any signs of bulbils being harvested.

In most cases, one flower stalks contains more bulbils than anybody can reasonably use. Years ago, I gave an Agave vilmoriniana to friends here in town, and when it flowered, they brought me a section of the bulbil-laden inflorescence:

I wish I'd done at least a rough count of the number of bulbils at the time, but there were many hundreds. I ended up taking the whole thing to a meeting of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society and asked members to take home as many bulbils as they wanted.

Remembering that, I chuckled when I saw this at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in January:

Agave vilmoriniana: the ultimate pass-along plant for the succulents fans in your life!

Other popular agave species known to produce bulbils include Agave angustifolia 'Marginata', Agave desmetiana, Agave 'Blue Glow', and ×Mangave 'Bloodspot'. Here is a great article on how to successfully root bulbils.

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  1. I've never seen an agave take that kind of "initiative" in planting its own progeny either!

  2. Like the archway the inflorescence created. I suspect the ones at the end were larger because it had arched over. I wonder how many of these little bulbils survive in the wild? One stalk could supply a whole city.

  3. The marginated (variegated?) version, 'Stained Glass' is slower to grow and flower, but no less generous with bulbils. Not all have the variegation, though.

    Time for the Huntington to spruce up that area.

  4. This is one of the shorter-lived species? Eight years is not a long time. Not an annual plant but maybe an octennial? Nice story, thanks.

  5. Excelling capture of the bent over and bulbil covered inflorescence! I believe you could add Agave ovatifolia to that list? Since Pam sent out so many baby Mobys. There's a blooming ovatifolia near me in NE Portland, I can see little babies starting to form on the spike. So exciting!


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