For a tough perennial that is is grown for striking foliage, the smallAgave filifera has a remarkably striking bloom as well. The one and a half inch long flowers are impressive pale green, and mixed with faded flowers. What makes them so compelling is that they are displayed on sculptural floral spikes that stand nearly six feet tall.
Unfortunately, each dense rosette of foliage is monocarpic, which means that it dies after bloom. Pups (sideshoots) sometimes develop as a main rosette deteriorates. If multiple pups develop and get crowded, they can be divided. Each rosette takes a few years to bloom, so should be around for quite a while.
The stiff evergreen leaves get about a foot or a foot and a half long, with unpleasantly sharp tips. Vigorous plants have white filaments that peel from the edges of the leaves. Like all agaves, Agave filifera, does not need much water once established. Unlike other agaves, it can tolerate a slight bit of shade.
Agaves are innately tough and undemanding. The main reason that they are not more popular in home gardens is that they are outfitted with nasty foliar spines. The worst of these spines are the distal tips of the large succulent leaves. Most agaves are also armed with shorter recurved spines on the margins of their leaves. Gardening with such well armed perennials can be dangerous.
A complete lack of foliar spines is what makes Agave attenuata such a deviant. The relatively pliable foliage forms big grayish rosettes that can get as broad and tall as four feet. Groups of these rosettes can slowly cover quite a bit of area. The plump stems below may eventually become exposed as they shed old foliage, but are they usually obscured as newer rosettes develop and grow.
The cultural preferences of Agave attenuata are also somewhat unusual. Unlike other agaves, it wants occasional watering and a slight bit of shade. If too exposed, it can get frosted in winter, or roasted in summer. Agave attenuata is also known as foxtail, lion’s tail or swan’s neck agave because its fluffy yellowish flower stalks curve downward, and maybe up again, to about six feet tall.
After providing remarkably striking foliage for many years, the biggest and boldest agaves bolt with spectacularly tall floral stalks that support horizontal pads of flowers. These stalks can bloom for months, and stand for months after bloom is finished. Then things get ugly. The foliage around each bloom folds back, desiccates and dies. There is no nice way to describe it. Bloom is death.
Plants that bloom only once and then die are ‘monocarpic’. Agaves are not truly monocarpic, since they do not really die completely. They survive by producing pups (offshoots) as their original rosettes of foliage die. Some agaves start to produce pups years prior to bloom, just to be ready. Most terrestrial yuccas (that do not form trunks) go through the same process shortly after bloom.
Pups can be so prolific that they get crowded. Because the larger agaves are so big, they can conquer a significant area with just a few pups. With all their dangerously nasty foliar spines, extra pups are not at all easy to remove. Once removed, pups can be planted elsewhere as new plants, but they will grow up into even more agaves that will eventually bloom and make more pups!
Removal of the carcasses of bloomed yuccas without getting stabbed by the sharply tipped leaves is challenging. Removal of the carcasses of big agaves is hellish! Spines of old foliage never go dull. Pups hiding below the old foliage are just as dangerous. Tall blooms must be cut down like small trees. The debris can not be recycled in green waste, so must be disposed of like trash.
Furcraeas, which are related to agaves and yuccas, produce fewer pups, or may not produce any pups at all. Of course, a bloomed plant without pups will die completely. However, the huge conical blooms (that resemble Christmas trees) produce bulbils, which are tiny new plants that can be plugged back into the garden to grow into new plants! Regardless of all the work, furcraeas, as well as yuccas and agaves (within reason), are worth growing for their dramatic foliage and impressive bloom.