People-friendly agaves

Many gardeners like the beauty and grace of agaves but are afraid of them because of their often fierce armaments. It's true, many agave species have impressive (read: scary) teeth and spines. But there are plenty of others that are less likely to cause bodily harm when you get too close.

Recently, I was asked which agaves are the most people-friendly. A dozen or so came to mind immediately, and a bit of research unearthed some others. 

The meaning of “people-friendly” is open to interpretation, but for me, the major factor is the lack of rip-your-skin teeth along the leaf margins—they are the biggest cause of injury. Do bear in mind that many species with smooth leaves still have a terminal spine at the leaf tip, so maintain some degree of caution when handling. A good example is Agave victoriae-reginae: It has rigid but smooth leaves that terminate in a stiff spine.

Below is a listing of agave species, hybrids, and cultivars with reasonably smooth leaves. The list is in two parts: commonly grown agaves, followed by lesser known species. The hardiness info comes from the wonderful San Marcos Growers website, my #1 go-to source for plant information.



Agave 'Blue Glow' and Agave 'Blue Flame'

Hardy to: 20-25°F ('Blue Glow')

Leaf margins: very small teeth

Terminal spine: small but sharp ('Blue Glow'), small and relatively soft ('Blue Flame')

Note: Both of these are hybrids of Agave attenuata, arguably the most people-friendly agave, but significantly hardier than A. attenuata.

Agave 'Blue Flame' (top center) and Agave 'Blue Glow' at Succulent Gardens in Castroville, CA

Variegated Agave 'Blue Flame' sold by Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County


Agave 'Mateo'

Hardy to: 10-15°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: none, just a long tapering leaf tip

Note: This A. bracteosa hybrid looks a lot like its parent but gets much larger.

Agave 'Mateo'


Agave albopilosa

Hardy to: 25-30°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: short but sharp, buried in the tufts of hair-like fibers

Note: A. albopilosa is a member of the Striatae group (see entry under A. striata below). It's still fairly rare in cultivation, but it's in tissue culture now as 'Tufts' so it should become more widely available soon.

Agave albopilosa


Agave attenuata, Agave pedunculifera

Hardy to: 28°F

Leaf margins: toothless (A. attenuata), fine teeth (A. pedunculifera)

Terminal spine: small and soft

Notes

  • A. attenuata is arguably the most people-friendly agave of them all, but it doesn't handle cold well. While it will survive temperatures below 28°F, it will sustain unsightly leaf damage. In fact, my A. attenuata tends to develop ugly black spots near 32°F. A. attenuata is a widely used landscaping plant in Southern California and Hawaii.
  • A. pedunculifera (syn. A. attenuata ssp. dentata) is almost indistinguishable, but it doesn't form a trunk and has fine teeth on the leaf margins and a more erect inflorescence in contrast to A. attenuata's signature “foxtail” flower stalk. Rancho Tissue offers a tissue-cultured introduction called 'Durango'.
  • Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County has created a hybrid between A. guiengola and A. attenuata which they call A. guinata 'Soledad' (see photo below). They rate its cold-hardiness as 32°F, so suitable for frost-free locations only. Width is 4-5 ft.

Mass planting of Agave attenuata at the Santa Barbara Mission

Agave attenuata in a private garden in Southern California

Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue', a cultivar with much bluer leaves than the species

Agave attenuata 'Kara's Stripe', one of several variegated cultivars

Agave attenuata 'Ray of Light', the most common variegated cultivar

Agave attenuata 'Variegata', a sought-after form

Agave pedunculifera at Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County

Agave guinata 'Soledadat Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County (photo © Rancho Soledad)



Agave bracteosa

Hardy to: 10-15°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: none

Note: Agave bracteosa is unarmed and cold-tolerant, but it offsets prodigiously, resulting in often messy clumps. The cultivar 'Calamar' produces far fewer offsets. Several variegated forms are now available, including 'Monterrey Frost' (white margins and green center) and 'Stingray' (creamy margins). The variegated cultivars are said to be less hardy than the species by about 10°F.

Agave bracteosa (left) and Agave parryi var. truncata

Agave bracteosa 'Monterrey Frost'

Agave desmetiana

Hardy to: 25-30°F

Leaf margins: small teeth to nearly toothless

Terminal spine: generally soft

Note: I hesitated to include Agave desmetiana because some forms have fairly pronounced marginal teeth (especially the beautiful variegate 'Joe Hoak'), but it's such a widely used agave that I decided to list it anyway. The regular variegated form is actually more common in cultivation than the all-green form.

Mass planting of the green form of Agave desmetiana at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, CA

Agave desmetiana 'Variegata' in our front yard

Agave desmetiana 'Joe Hoak' in a private garden in Southern California

A particularly striking and completely toothless variegated form of Agave desmetiana in Jeremy Spath's collection


Agave ellemeetiana

Hardy to: 30-32°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: none

Note: Like Agave attenuata, A. ellemeetiana is as people-friendly as it gets in the agave world. Unfortunately, this beautiful species hates the cold, which limits its use to mild-winter coastal areas. A tissue-cultured cultivar called 'Sateen' is becoming more popular in Southern California.

Agave ellemeetiana 'Sateen' in Mat McGrath's Berkeley Hills garden

Agave ellemeetiana at a nursery in the Palm Springs area


Agave filifera, Agave multifilifera, Agave schidigera, Agave × leopoldii, Agave × romanii 'Shadow Dancer'

Hardy to: 15-20°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: none to small but sharp

Note: These species and hybrids have white filaments along the leaf margins, which give them a unique look. Agave filifera offsets, while A. multifilifera and A. schidigera don't. A. schidigera has much wider leaves than A. multifilifera. A number of variegated forms and hybrids exist.

Agave filifera (right)

Agave multifilifera

Agave schidigera

Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi', a variegated form originally found in Japan

Agave × leopoldii, a hybrid between Agave filifera and A. schidigera (it offsets, as you can see)

Agave × romanii 'Shadow Dancer', a choice hybrid between Agave filifera and Agave mitis var. albidior


Agave geminiflora

Hardy to: 25-30°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small but weak

Note: Visually similar to the filiferous agaves above, but with even thinner and more rounded leaves. Some forms of A. geminiflora have no filaments while others have a lot. In general, this species is less hardy than A. filifera and its close relatives.

Agave geminiflora

Agave geminiflora at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson


Agave guiengola

Hardy to: 25°F

Leaf margins: no teeth to small teeth

Terminal spine: small but sharp 

Notes

  • San Marcos Growers lists the cold hardiness of A. guiengola as 25°F, but in my (admittedly limited) experience, this species develops ugly black spots in the low 30s. This massive but fairly user-friendly agave (to 6 ft. in width) is reasonably common in Southern California but rarely seen in Northern California. Some forms have almost smooth leaf margins, others have noticeable teeth (esp. cultivar 'Moto Sierra').
  • Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County has created a hybrid between A. guiengola and A. attenuata which they call A. guinata 'Soledad' (see photo below). They rate its cold-hardiness as 32°F, so suitable for frost-free locations only. Width is 4-5 ft.

A quartet of Agave guiengola in a private garden in Santa Barbara

Agave guiengola in 24-inch boxes at Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County

Agave guiengola 'Crème Brûlée' at Rancho Soledad Nursery

Agave guinata 'Soledadat Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County (photo © Rancho Soledad)


Agave mitis

Hardy to: 20-25°F

Leaf margins: small teeth to nearly toothless

Terminal spine: generally soft

Note: As with A. desmetiana, I hesitated to include A. mitis because some forms do have small teeth along the leaf margins. However, it's such a beautiful and generally friendly agave that it deserves to be mentioned. Note that A. mitis is often still referenced by its previous (and now superseded) name A. celsii.


Agave mitis var. mitis at the San Diego Botanic Garden

Agave mitis var. mitis at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA

Agave mitis var. albidior in the Huntington Desert Garden

Agave mitis var. albidior (UCBG form) at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley


Agave 'Chocolate Edge', either a form or hybrid of Agave mitis, at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Agave mitis 'Nova', a distinct blue form, possibly a hybrid

Agave nickelsiae

Hardy to: 10-15°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: very sharp terminal spines, typically one large spine and two smaller ones

Note: Formerly known as Agave ferdinandi-regis, this strikingly beautiful member of the Agave victoriae-reginae complex is not as common in gardens as it deserves to be, probably because it's a slow grower.

Agave nickelsiae

Agave nickelsiae

Agave ocahui

Hardy to: 15-20°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small but sharp

Note: A striking smaller species that forms beautifully symmetrical rosettes and doesn't offset. Together with Agave attenuata, it's one of the parents of Agave 'Blue Glow'.

Agave ocahui at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Agave ocahui at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, AZ


Agave pelona

Hardy to: 20-25°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: very long

Note: Similar to A. ocahui but with longer leaves and a long terminal spine, the appropriately named A. pelona (“pelón” meaning bald in Spanish) is now becoming more common in cultivation thanks to a tissue-culture cultivar called 'Excalibur'. Since both species are solitary, propagation is only by seed or tissue culture.

Agave pelona at Jan Emming's Destination:Forever Ranch in Yucca, AZ

Agave pelona at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson

Agave pelona at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson

Agave pelona babies at Greg Starr's nursery in Tucson


Agave victoriae-reginae

Hardy to: 10-15°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small but rigid

Note: The queen of agaves comes in a variety of forms, some pupping prolifically. Personally, I think it looks best mass-planted as individual specimens, rather than as an offsetting clump. The forms with the most pronounced white markings are the most sought-after. The Huntington sells a beautiful dwarf selection called ‘Himesanoyuki’.

Agave victoriae-reginae at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA

Agave victoriae-reginae at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson

Agave victoriae-reginae with superb markings at UC Davis. Unfortunately, this specimen has bloomed and died since I took this photo.


Agave vilmoriniana

Hardy to: 20-25°F

Leaf margins: toothless or very small serrations

Terminal spine: long but soft

Note: Together with A. attenuata and A. ellemeetiana one of the most people-friendly species. Often called octopus agave because of its growth habit. Always solitary. Flowers young (5-7 years) and produces countless bulbils on its inflorescence. A variegated selection called 'Stained Glass' is widely available.

Agave vilmoriniana at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson

Agave vilmoriniana at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson

Agave vilmoriniana 'Stained Glass' at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA

Agave vilmoriniana 'Stained Glass' in a private garden in Southern California

In recent years, I've come across two Agave vilmoriniana hybrids that are as toothless and people-friendly as the species. These hybrids are not available for sale as of yet, but I'm hoping they will be down the line, especially if they produce bulbils upon flowering.

Agave vilmoriniana × guiengola seen in Jeremy Spath's garden

Agave vilmoriniana × pelona seen at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


Agave weberi

Hardy to: 10-15°F

Leaf margins: almost toothless to finely toothed

Terminal spine: fairly sharp terminal spine

Note: Together with A. guiengola, this is the largest of the (fairly) toothless agaves, 6-8 ft. in width by 6 ft. in height. It's a common landscaping plant in Arizona and Texas and, to a lesser degree, Southern California. A slightly smaller variegated selection called 'Arizona Star' is now widely available.

Agave weberi in a private garden in Austin, TX

Agave weberi 'Arizona Star' at Balboa Park in San Diego





The species below are less common in cultivation. Some aren't all that attractive, but others (like Agave chazaroi and Agave pintilla) are stunners. Others yet (like Agave parviflora and Agave polianthiflora) are among the most diminutive species and fit into even the smallest gardens; they're worth seeking out just for that.

Agave cerulata ssp. dentiens

Hardy to: 10°F

Leaf margins: toothless or almost toothless

Terminal spine: long and thin, but fairly weak

Note: This small Baja California agave is highly sought after for its ethereal pale coloration ranging from sky blue to sea blue. Even though it offsets, it's remarkably difficult to find for purchase.

Agave cerulata ssp. dentiens

Agave cerulata ssp. dentiens

Agave chazaroi

Hardy to: 30-32°F

Leaf margins: almost toothless

Terminal spine: stiff spine

Note: This striking solitary species hasn't been tested enough yet to know how hardy it really is (or isn't). My own specimen (potted) is about 3 ft. across now, but I cover it on nights with freezing temperatures because I don't want unsightly leaf damage. A. chazaroi is in tissue culture now so I expect to see it in wider distribution soon.

Agave chazaroi at Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County

Agave chazaroi in the Desert Garden at the Huntington


Agave chrysoglossa

Hardy to: 25°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: thin, not very sharp

Note: Resembles A. ocahui but with a looser, less symmetrical rosette.



Agave felgeri

Hardy to: 20-25°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small

Note: Like its relative A. parvifloraA. felgeri is a diminutive species with white filaments along the leaf margins. It's not particularly pretty, but it makes a good rockery plant.



Agave parviflora, Agave polianthiflora

Hardy to: 20-25°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small

Note: Both A. parviflora and A. polianthiflora are among the smallest agave species. They look very similar in their vegetative state but have distinctly different inflorescences. Because of their diminutive size, they're great for rockeries and containers. Variegated forms exist and are particularly desirable (and expensive).

Agave parviflora 'Pinpoint' in Mariel Dennis's collection

Young Agave polianthiflora from Ethical Desert

Variegated Agave polianthiflora in Jeremy Spath's collection


Agave pintilla

Hardy to: 10°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small but very stiff

Note: A. pintilla is a member of the A. victoriae-reginae complex, which also includes A. nickelsiae. It's a relatively recently described species (2011) known only from southeastern Durango, MX. Sought after for its beautiful markings, A. pintilla is slowly becoming more available. Small plants are fairly plain-looking as the white markings develop with age.

Agave pintilla at Greg Starr's nursery in Tucson

Agave pintilla entry in Jeremy Spath's and Jeff Moore's new book Agaves: Species, Cultivars & Hybrids


Agave striata, Agave stricta, and related species

Hardy to: varies by species; as low as 0°F for Agave striata, 20°F for Agave stricta, and 30°F for Agave petrophila

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small; rigid in species with stiffer leaves

Note: The Striatae group includes 10+ related species, some with narrow needle-like leaves, others with flat leaves. The former are usually toothless, the latter may have fine serrations. Some of these species are generic-looking, others have great garden potential (my favorites are A. kavandivi and A. rzedowskiana) but may be hard to find.

Agave striata

Agave stricta at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley

Agave dasylirioides at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Agaves in the Striatae group in my collection (clockwise beginning in the 7 o’clock and ending in the 6 o’clock position): Agave striata ‘Nana’, Agave kavandiviAgave tenuifoliaAgave petrophilaAgave cremnophilaAgave rzedowskiana. Some of these are quite tender.


Agave toumeyana, Agave toumeyana var. bella 

Hardy to: 10°F

Leaf margins: toothless

Terminal spine: small and inconspicuous

Note: Another smallish agave with filaments along the leaf margins. Offsets heavily, as you can see in the photo below. The variety bella has more leaves than the species and forms more symmetrical rosettes; its overall appearance is very similar to A. parviflora. A great plant for rockeries and containers.

Agave toumeyana at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, AZ

Agave toumeyana var. bella at the 2016 Sacramento C&S Society Show


UPDATES:
  • 1/14/22: Agave cerulata ssp. dentiens added
  • 1/18/22: Agave guinata 'Soledad' added under Agave attenuata and Agave guiengola



If you know of any other smooth-leaved agaves I left out in this listing, please leave a comment below.


© Gerhard Bock, 2022. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.

Comments

  1. An excellent and comprehensive post Gerhard. As someone newly interested in Agaves, I found this very helpful, especially as we have a curious kitty.

    Agave availability is pretty limited in Aus as some are considered weeds here, although I was very excited to find a ‘Blue Glow’ in a recent delivery of assorted succulents at the nursery where I work.

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    1. I wish they'd bring more agaves to Australia! Not much of a chance of that now during the pandemic, I guess...

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  2. Well damn, that was a lot of beauty right there. Excellent photo collection.

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  3. This is a nice one similar to victoria-reginae, https://worldofsucculents.com/agave-impressa/. Not sure how friendly it is though.

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    1. Excellent choice! I've seem some A. impressa with fairly small teeth, but others are pretty fierce.

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  4. This is an excellent survey, Gerhard. It's more extensive and detailed than I expected at first glance.

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    1. It started out as a simple list, then I fell down the rabbit hole :-)

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  5. Love this post especially in that you provided hardiness ratings. None of these are hardy where I am but I do grow many of them in pots and overwinter them in a garage that hovers around 30F. Am always experimenting with who stays in the garage and who comes into the house so this is excellent info. Have to admit I always nip off the tip of the spine as have been punctured one too many times

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    1. LOL, my wife nips off the spines on all the agaves near walkways. Me, I take a more Darwinian approach.

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  6. A detailed and informative post! I really enjoyed reading it and looking at the photos. It's nice to see a most extraordinarily fine 'King Ferdinand' specimen. I appreciate the "less dangerous" sentiment and yet... the highest level of spikiness I'm will to tolerate is my variegated yucca filamentosa.

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    1. LOL. few succulents are as friendly as Yucca filamentosa. Heck, I can think of many non-succulent perennials that are pricklier!

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