Agaves will break your heart

Today’s post documents the journey that my Agave parryi ‘JC Raulston’ has been on over the last few months, with a little bonus Agave content at the end. Here is my little agave on December 21st, looking quite good along with its first pup down in the lower left. This is (was) planted in a mixture containing mostly gravel and sand.

And, here it is 18 days later, on January 8th. Quite a difference. You can see the lower, bottom leaves have died and are beginning to wrinkle while most of the upper leaves still appear firm and healthy. I am taking this as evidence that whatever the conditions were that caused the leaves to freeze and die occurred mainly down low, near or just below the surface. There were also a few soft patches on some of the upper leaves, but they were pretty small at this point.

One week later, on January 15th, the soft patches on the upper leaves had expanded and darkened to the point that I could see them more clearly.

Whoo boy, here we are 27 days after that, on February 11th. I attempted a clean up, but had difficulty severing the slimy, stringy mess. I wasn’t able to pull the leaves off cleanly and neither scissors nor a knife worked. Starting to think this guy isn’t going to make it.

All of this occurred after that series of hard frosts that came after the heavy rains that saturated the soil. Even though my agave was planted in a mound of 18+ inches of gravel and sand, I imagine that those icy crystals were stabbing into it here too.

Further evidence that things got bad this winter. Take a look at these Sempervivum nearby. Normally tough as nails and old leather. I have never seen these damaged by winter, until now. Again, the lower leaves are the most severely affected.

Things deteriorated for my agave from there. I tried cleaning up more of the stinking, rotting leaves as they got worse, but it was a losing battle. I decided to dig it up and bring it into work to see if it could be salvaged. Here we are on February 24th, after the clean-up operation. There’s not much left, but maybe the core is still sound.

Most of the roots are still firm, but what worries me the most is the zone of brown between the roots and the leaves. Not sure if there is enough living tissue under there so that it will survive or if this is going to be fatal. I guess we will find out.

Update: Originally I wrote this post on 2/28. Here we are on 3/16 and JC Raulston is rotting from the base as I expected it would. RIP. Interesting, I guess, how the upper part of the leaves were still alive enough to turn green and photosynthesize. They didn’t know they were doomed yet.

In addition, my Agave bracteosa, which had apparently sailed through the winter and all the crappy weather looking like this…

Suddenly, without warning, turned to this a few days ago.

I dug it up in the hopes of saving it, but the central, young leaves on the pup to the left are all brown and squishy and the main plant on the right has that brown collar, which makes me suspect it will be dead in a few days.

And, thus ends my adventures trying to grow agaves in the ground, at least for now. Our winter really didn’t seem that bad compared to most. Pretty typical. However, the damage to my Sempervivums in that one part of the yard suggests that we had at least one unusual, extreme weather event. Maybe my A. bracteosa was damaged back then and it took until now for the symptoms to show up. I am debating whether to try planting agaves again or just accept the fact that they are not adapted to our location.

On a related note, I came upon this surprising scene while gallivanting about Corvallis one Tuesday night (02/28). Check out the Citizen’s Bank parking lot.

No, it wasn’t the kitty litter that was used as a landscape mulch. Nor was it the tropical pink phormium clashing horribly with the pallid yellow yucca in a desert-type landscape. No, I had somehow managed to ignore all of that as I was intently walking to dinner, when I happened to glance down and see this little fella. What the?

There was no possible way that could have made it through the winter we just had, right? Really? They planted it outside?! And it looked this pristine?!?! That, that is what got me to stop to take a closer look (and therefore arrive late to dinner, exasperating L to no end).

Circling back inside the parking lot, you can just make out this little guy in the center, next to the pink phormium.

Suddenly, I was seeing the parking lot through completely different eyes. I quickly scanned the lot and saw that yes indeed, there were potentially some other interesting treasures. Someone here had chutzpah.

Do I spy another agave? Yes, yes I do!

Ok, yup. These have definitely been out all winter. What about that one over there?

Not too bad!

I found one more okay looking agave and started wishing I knew how to identify them better. I haven’t really bothered to learn about the different species because most would just die spectacularly in my garden and lead to needless heartbreak.

There were a few more scattered about, like here, on this desert island.

Looks like Agave parryi. And, in the disheveled condition that I would expect based on my experience at home.

Oh, and bless their hearts, it looks like they tried some Agave victoriae-reginae outside with disastrous consequences. That was one I knew wouldn’t even be remotely hardy here. Seems a shame, because I can’t imagine they were cheap.

I’m still not a fan of light-colored pumice as a landscape mulch, nor the pink phormium that doesn’t look right in this xeric setting, but hats off to whoever tried something different in downtown Corvallis.

There’s got to be an interesting story here. It’s an odd plant palette with some interesting choices that make me wonder about the experience of the person who designed it. How did Citizen’s Bank decide on this particular landscape design compared to all the other possibilities? Was it an inside job? An employee with a passion for the eclectic?

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Kris P

    Ouch! I’m sorry your plants succumbed to winter’s ravages. I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t discovered problems of this sort (I’m knocking wood as I type so I don’t jinx myself) given the very wet 3 months we’ve had this year. My soil leans sandy, which helps, and the rainfall here, though heavier than usual, hasn’t been nearly as plentiful at that in many of the surrounding areas. However, about a month ago, a friend brought in a landscaping professional to replant the raised planters at the front of her townhouse with a mix of succulents and she’s already lost several agaves. She said the soil was amended to encourage drainage but I learned that her brick planters have a concrete floor so I expect drainage is a much bigger issue than she’d realized.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      It’s been fun to try. I had so much hope for these given how well they did for others in Oregon. Still, everyone up here had a harsh winter on succulents, so who knows? Maybe I will try another of each if I find them at a reasonable price. As you pointed out, even when we do everything we think we are supposed to do to provide the best conditions, there may be other factors that come into play.

  2. hb

    Oh that’s rough. But experimenting is part of the adventure, right? My guess is water sitting in the base of the leaves might be the issue, since the root system doesn’t appear to have turned to mush. A little rain-diverting roof of some sort over them for the winter might have done the trick, or planting under eaves of the house?? Also planting at a tilt on a mound so water drains out from the very center of the plant, where all the growth begins. A lot of Agaves can take cold, and can take rain, but not both at the same time.

    I’ve been worried about some of my own plants due to our area’s lavish rainfall this winter (20″!!!) but so far so good. It was so very dry here for so many years, even now digging a couple feet down into the soil, in areas without runoff, I’m finding dry soil.

    Best wishes!

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Yes, I think you are right. We’ve alternated a lot this year between days that are cool and wet suddenly shifting to freezing cold. The agaves obviously hated that. Looking back, I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently. I did have my JC Raulston under a cover , but it wasn’t enough and my A. bracteosa looked so good I thought it was fine – until suddenly it wasn’t. I will probably try again at some point.

      Happy to hear that you got some good rainfall. But, as you point out, it’s still dry further down in the soil profile and it looks like we are headed back towards drought again.

  3. danger garden

    Well damn. I am so sorry to see your plants didn’t make it. I’ve suffered more agave loss as well. Just yesterday I tossed a large Agave ‘Sharkskin’ I’ve had since 2015 (speaking of, that’s what the plant on the left in your Agave victoriae-reginae double photo looks to be). The thing that I’m having a hard time with is how random the losses and damage around my garden are. Not just the agaves but my pyrrosia for example.

    Nice find with the odd parking lot landscaping. That little variegated agave that you started the post with, so bizarre that it looks that good! (and no, I’m not even gonna try and guess ID for it)

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      I still want to try planting agaves again, just need to develop a better overwintering program. I knew our site was harsh, but after they made it through last year, I thought we were good to go. They are such bold, dramatic statements in the garden. Can’t grow Fatsia either and we just had another Yucca linearifolia kick the bucket – those tend to be super tough here. Obviously a tough winter. Very sad to hear about your Pyrrosia. I was thinking of trialing a few in a couple spots. You are right – very random losses.
      Couldn’t believe that parking lot when I saw it. Very adventurous for Corvallis.

  4. Anna K

    What a sad post… so sorry for all your losses. I’m in all shade, so I can’t really grow any agaves, but they are such stunning plants I always drool over them in the sunnier gardens of others. I did have a fair number of phormium, though. I’m pretty sure they all died – except maybe one. As for the public landscape, I always appreciate when someone takes a chance on trying something different, even if it’s a bit random. Who knows, it just might work…

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      I’ve been surprised by the amount of shade that some agaves can tolerate. I sort of wonder if maybe mine would have fared better underneath a Dougfir tree – more protection from temperature extremes and slightly drier too. Agreed that it is always interesting to see when someone tries unconventional plants. At least it gets a conversation going.

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