Tuesday 22 March 2011

The work horse of the agave world

Like all of life in the agave world there are the plants that get all the attention and those that do the work.  It is a simple trap we all fall into, posting pictures of that elusive plant we have been after for year, or some new variegate and forgetting about the plants that have been the backbone of our gardens or are actually hardy. So in the hope of redressing the balance I thought I would give one of those overlooked plants it's 15 minutes in the spot light.

So let me introduce agave parryi a plant almost every one who has ever looked at agaves knows about.  It is found in almost every garden center and is only behind agave americana in terms of availability. One of the reasons it is so common is that it is one of the hardier varieties and as such is planted out in dry beds throughout the world. We all rely on it but tend to not give it a second thought.  But look again, few agaves have the range of forms that you find in parryi.  This is the plain green form

This is probably the one most commonly sold, but the leaf shape can vary greatly from thin to almost round. If you don't like the green they come in blue as well.

Surely with that pale blue colour it deserves attention despite being a work horse! This is the only agave I am currently allowing to form a clump and I think if they all stay as blue as the mother then they will rightly attract a lot of attention. Then there are the named varieties, one of my favourites is parry HK1684 (the collection number)

This one tends to have thinner leaves and a good pale blue colour with the added bonus of dark red / burgundy spines.  I saw a photo of someone elses and had to track it down, thankfully they are easy to find. Although not as fast as the normal form they are quick growing once they settle. This one is left under a simple rain cover over winter and never marks (the marks on the lower leaves were there when I bought it). There are a couple of other varieties if you want to make sure you have the full set, one being a more compact form called var patonii, the plant below belongs to a friend.

It is a very distinctive form with thick terminal spines.  Strangely you rarely see this offered in the plain form and are more likely to see the variegated form of a parryi var patonii

Both of these are slow by agave parryi standards, although thankfully they do speed up a bit each year and they can pup from a small size.  The other variegate you will commonly find (partly do to tissue culture now) is agave parryi cream spike.

While this is my lopsided one it can be difficult to tell the difference between this and the other variegated forms coming onto the market and many believe they are all the same form being given different names in different parts of the world. I have limited my searching to these two variegated forms because of this, although a medio-picta form with a central white stripe would probably be welcomed with open arms if I found one.

You may feel we have strayed with the variegated forms. Many people group them with the other pretty plants giving them protection over winter.  No matter how pretty, they are still agave parryi and as such should all have a good cold hardiness.  To test this, I left an agave parryi var patonii variegate and a cream spike out next to the my HK1684 and both came through this terrible winter without any problems at all. From now on all of mine will be outside, all-be-it under a rain cover, freeing up a bit of space in warmer locations for the softer plants.

So next time you look at agave parryi don't just think of it as part of the hardy back bone of your dry bed,  remember it may be a work horse but can also be a thoroughbred.


  1. The truncata form is the common one here, but its a workhorse, too.

  2. I don't think it is just related to agaves where we forget how good some of the plants we rely on are.