Verde Valley Agaves - March 24, 1999
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Agaves are attractive desert succulents that are also known as century plants. They get this name from the mistaken belief that they only flower after 100 years. In nature, the flowering cycle usually takes 10 to 20 years. They produce the magnificent flowers on long stalks which attract bats, birds, and insects that also act as pollinators. To watch the agave flowering is truly amazing. The stalk begins to bolt skyward from the rosette and soon looks like an asparagus stalk. This happens so fast, you can literally watch it grow (or so it seems). Once they reach full height (up to 20 feet), the flowers open, produce fruit, seedpods open, then individual plants fade and die. The dead flower stalks are also attracting and are often still standing after one or two years.

Agaves have fleshy, strap-shaped leaves with spiny or smooth margins. They form basal clumps and on the spiny species, the exposed leaf surfaces are imprinted with the texture of the spines. Several showy species from Mexico are commonly planted in low desert landscapes. Our native species can also be incorporated into landscapes although you may have to search them out at specialty nurseries or botanical gardens. Large commercial nurseries are also producing clones of some unique selections found in nature.

Agaves are in the lily family and are closely related to yucca, beargrass, and sotol (desert spoon). One species, called the "shin dagger," actually looks quite a bit like a yucca. Many species of agave reproduce vegetatively as well as from seed. The vegetative "pups" appear at the base of the mother plant.

Agaves have also given indigenous peoples food and fiber for thousands of years. The pit-roasted heart of the agave was an important food source to Native Americans and the rock-lined roasting pits can be found near agave stands in the local area. Sisal comes from a Mexican species. Pulque is an intoxicating beverage made from the fermented juice of the hearts of certain agave species. Further distillation yields tequila and mescal. I've heard that mescal produces a unique euphoria. All I know is that it is an acquired taste. I've never been able to keep enough of it down to find out. By the way, don't eat the worm. Other species are used as emmenagogues, laxatives, and diuretics.

Our local species is Agave parryi. It is found in the mountains between 4,500 and 8,000 feet. Some nice stands can be seen along 89A on the slopes both above and below Jerome. It is the hardiest agave and has a large, tight, cabbage-like rosette. This is an excellent candidate for landscaping and looks especially nice in group plantings.

The following would also be suitable for planting in the Verde Valley if you run into them for sale at nurseries or botanical gardens. A larger, more robust cousin to our local agave is Agave parryi var. Huachucensis. It is a native of southern Arizona and Sonora. Agave palmeri has a narrower leaf and more delicate flower stalk. Agave utahensis is the northernmost species and has a tall, but more compact flower stalk.

Remember, these plants are protected in the wild. If you are transporting them, be prepared to show your Arizona Department of Agriculture collecting permit and have your tags attached to the plants. Otherwise, look forward to a visit to jail. Seriously, plant thieves are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on native and water conserving plants. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 or E-mail us at and be sure to include your address and phone number.

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: March 15, 2001
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