Awaken the Kraken

A few weeks ago, we posted images of the flower spike of our Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’ just beginning to spike. Now, the giant beast is in full flower. The first photo below is the plant with its full expanded stalk in full bud, just prior to opening. After that, each image shows the progression of the flower development.

Agaves are monocarpic, so those species like Agave ovatifolia that do not make offsets will die after flowering. Agave ovatifolia is, however, one of a handful of species that usually forms baby plantlets on the tip of flowers stalk after seed set.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

First flowers just beginning to open

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

We set up our Little Giant ladder, which allows us to climb up, collect pollen and to make crosses with other agaves.

The lower flower clusters open first and flowering continues to progress each day moving higher up the stalk.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

Climbing the ladder gives you a bird’s eye view of the amazing buds as they are ready to open…usually 200-300 per panicle.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

Below is a half-open flower panicle. The pollen is ripe before the stigma is ready to receive pollen, so pollen can be easily gathered without worry of self pollination.

Below is a fully open flower panicle. Each panicle weighs 5-10 pounds. No wonder the stalk needs to be so sturdy. Once the temperature warms in the morning, the flowers are abuzz with pollinators…mostly bees.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

Looking down from above the flower panicle makes a pretty crazy photo

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

Our intern Zoe is working with our volunteer agave curator, Vince Schneider to gather pollen and make crosses with other previously gathered agave pollen

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

I usually don’t climb this high…a fear of heights, but this photo opportunity was just too good to resist

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’

Habitat Creation

In case you missed this section of the garden during spring open house, this is where we created a small vignette that comprises both bog and desert conditions in the same space. The low central area was created for pitcher plants and other bog lovers, while the higher areas to each side, are home to dryland loving plants like agaves and bearded iris. We hope to show how dramatically diverse habits can be created in a very small space. The wet space is created by installing a seep, which is nothing more than a continually dripping water line.

Feel the Berm

Just over a year ago, we built a new berm garden, adjacent to our Open House welcome tent. Here is that garden today. The soil is composed of 50% Permatill (slate gravel), 25% compost, and 25% native soil). This is in an unirrigated section of the garden. Like all garden spaces at JLBG, no commercial fertilizers are ever allowed. The exceptional drainage and high nutrient content from the compost and Permatill result in an amazing growth rate.

The Look of Love

If you’re able to visit during this years spring open house, it will be hard to miss the look of love in the air. We have a record 20 century plants in spike in the garden…a number far surpassing any flowering record we’ve set previously.

Agaves are a genus of mostly monocarpic plants…they live their entire lives to flower once, then after experiencing a giant-sized orgasm, they fall over dead. In the wild, many species take up to 100 years to flower, which is why the name century plant stuck as a common name. In our more rainy climate, our century plants typically flower in 12-15 years. Several of our current crop are actually less than a decade old, but their enormous size has already been achieved, so they’re ready to reproduce.

Some species of agaves offset, and in this case, only then central rosette dies, and the offsets continue as is the case with bromeliads. Those agave species which never offset are one-and-dones, but hopefully will leave behind a plethora of seed for the next generation. From the start of the spikes to full flower is usually about 8 weeks. Below are a few of our babies in spike.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’
Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’
Agave lophantha JLBG-01
Agave x loferox JLBG-014
Agave x pseudoferox JLBG-176

Snowgaves

We’ve “enjoyed” frozen precipitation for three consecutive weekends this winter, with one producing a decent 3.5″ snow. There’s something magnetic about snow on century plants, that makes you grab your camera and snap away.

The white of the snow looks out of place on an agave, although it does wonders for accenting the architectural structure of the plant. We have worked for 35 years to identify and create agaves which are completely tolerant of such weather events. Below are a couple of our hybrids, created here at JLBG.

Agave x amourifolia
Agave x loferox

Agave frog

Since we’ve been growing agaves, one of the most fascinating things we’ve noticed is the incredible attraction of tree frogs and Carolina anoles to their leaf texture. There is hardly a day that goes by that we don’t spot one or the other, nestled on an agave leaf. Here is our most recent image of our native green tree frog, Hyla cinerea, basking in the sun on an Agave parryi hybrid. Ain’t nature grand!

Too Straight and Narrow

It’s always interesting when we introduce a plant we think is an incredible addition to the garden, but virtually no one purchases it. Thank goodness, it doesn’t happen too often, but I’m reminded of one such case every day when I get home and admire our row of Agave x striateosa ‘Straight and Narrow’. This 2015 introduction was the first ever hybrid introduction of Agave bracteosa and Agave striata…both non-spiny century plants.

We couldn’t stand to throw out all the plants that didn’t sell, so we planted a row under a wide overhang along our home, where they never see any water, and are in shade for more than half the day. Here is one of those plants five years later, providing a texture and form that you simply can’t find with any other plants that tolerates those conditions.

We have a second seedling from the same cross, which we’ve never been able to share, but which flowered in 2015. Despite our best attempts, we were not able to get any seed set. Now, we await the first flowering of this clone in the hopes it is more fertile, so we can create some more unusual hybrids. Unlike most century plants, Agave striata is not monocarpic (doesn’t die after flowering), so we expect this hybrid to also live on in perpetuity after flowering. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-10, at least.

Agave x striateosa ‘Straight and Narrow’

Stingray in the Garden

One of our favorite winter hardy (Zone 7b) century plants is the non-spiny Agave bracteosa ‘Stingray’. Here is one of our garden specimens this week, which has been thriving in the ground since 2016. Unlike most agaves, which prefer full sun, Agave bracteosa is better in part sun (full sun for only a few hours during the day). Agave bracteosa ‘Stingray’ is also a fairly slow grower that only produces a few offsets. A mature rosette will top out around 15-18″ tall x 2′ wide. We love the unique texture, which differs from all other agaves.

Mangave zombies

One of many great attributes of mangaves, compared to one of their parents, agaves, is that they don’t die after flowering. Agaves are mostly monocarpic, which mean that they behave like bromeliads, where each rosette grows to maturity, then dies after flowering. Those species of agave which offset, live on after flowering, by means of un-flowered offsets. Those agave species which don’t offset are a one and done after they flower and reproduce by reseeding.

By incorporating manfreda genes to create xMangaves, the monocarpic trait disappears. After a mangave flowers, it dies to the ground, but like a good zombie, it soon pops back from the dead. Here is a current photo from the garden of two clumps of xMangave ‘Blue Mammoth’. The first, larger clump has not flowered, but should do so next year. The second clump with all the offsets, flowered in 2020, and re-grew to this point in 2021. Next year, the rosettes will continue to re-grow in size.

The Flowery Gates of JLBG

We’ve been working on upgrading many of the temporary gates throughout the garden, our first few, which went in this year are all designed by NC sculptor Jim Gallucci, from photos we took in the JLBG Gardens. We all need more art in our gardens…Enjoy!

Sarracenia leucophylla gate
Dryopteris fern gate
Hosta gate
Iris ensata gate
Agave parryi gate

Queen for an Agave

I was fascinated to find these monarch butterfly chrysalis’s hanging out on an agave in the crevice garden recently. Our entomologist, Bill Reynolds, tells me that when the caterpillars are finished feeding, they will often migrate from a nearby asclepias to all kinds of odd plants to hangout until it’s time to come out of their closet. It’s hard to imagine a full-size monarch butterfly inside these little structures, but perhaps they are like Dr. Who’s Tardis.

Sex for the Centuries

Since we are limited in the number of hardy century plant species, our only option for more agave diversity in the garden is to create it by crossing existing hardy species together. Here are a few of our recent successes.

Agave x amourifolia is a Plant Delights/JLBG creation from a cross we made in 2016 that combined the genes of three century plants, Agave ovatifolia, Agave lophantha, and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Logan Calhoun’. Our size estimates were that the offspring would mature at 3′ tall x 5′ wide. Here is one of our garden specimens photographed this week, which has already reached 2′ tall x 3′ wide.

Agave x amourifolia

Below is Agave x ovox, a 2017 cross of the two giants, Agave ovatifolia and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Bellville’. We expect this to get huge…perhaps 5′ tall x 10′ wide.

Agave x ovox ‘Large Ox’

Below is Agave x protifolia is a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave x protamericana x Agave ovatifolia. We also expect this to get quite massive.

Agave x protifolia

Below is Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’, a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave flexispina. We would have expected this to be a mature size, but it’s achieved this in only 5 years, so we think we’re seeing some serious hybrid vigor.

Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’

Below is Agave x ocareginae, our 2016 cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave victoriae-reginae. Most likely, this elegant small grower will never offset.

Agave x ocareginae

Below is Agave x schuphantha, a 2015 Mike Papay cross involving three century plant species, Agave schidigera, Agave lophantha, and Agave lechuguilla. It’s formed a beautiful, symmentrical rosette, which should be getting close to mature size.

Agave x schuphantha ‘Wheel of Fortune’

Sibling rivalry

As a plant breeder, one of the cool things we get to do is observe the diversity that arises from a single cross. In some cases, the diversity shows up in the first generation (F1), while in other cases, the first set of offspring need to have sex with each other for the diversity in the offspring to reveal itself (Mendelian genetics). Fortunately, with agaves, we can see quite a bit of diversity in the F1 populations.

Below is a cross we call Agave x amourifolia, which is our cross of Agave ovatifolia, pseudoferox (salmiana var. ferox of Hort.), and lophantha. Here are three of our selected seedlings from that cross.

Plant #1 below is showing the large size of Agave x pseudoferox and the color of Agave ovatifolia (blue), with little visible influence of the narrow leaf, yellow-centered Agave lophantha.

Agave x amourifolia

Plant #2 below show more color influence from Agave x pseudoferox, but with the compact form influence of Agave ovatifolia.

Agave x amourifolia

Plant #3 below shows equal parts Agave x pseudoferox and ovatifolia, but also, what appears some leaf narrowing we would expect from Agave lophantha.

Agave x amourifolia

Below is Agave x flexiferox, created from a cross of the small Agave flexispina x the giant pseudoferox (salmiana var. ferox (Hort.). Plant #1 shows the small size of Agave flexispina, with the greenish coloration of Agave x pseudoferox.

Agave x flexiferox

Below, Agave x flexiferox ‘Megalodon’ shows the larger size and overall coloration from Agave x pseudoferox, with some added blue tones from Agave flexispina.

Agave x flexiferox ‘Megalodon’

Below is Agave x victoferox, a cross of Agave victoriae-reginae x pseudoferox. Plant #1 below shows the form and size of Agave victoriae-reginae with the color of Agave x psedoferox.

Agave x victorferox

Hybrid #2 below shows the teeth from Agave x psedoferox (victoriae-reginae has no teeth), and a size intermediate between the two parents.

Agave x victorferox 2

Hybrid #3 below shows a larger size and more teeth due to more genes from Agave x pseudoferox. The teeth are much smaller because of the Agave victoriae-reginae genes. The splendid compact form also comes from the Agave x victoriae-reginae parent. This cross almost resembles the Northern Mexican Agave montana.

Agave x victorferox 3

We hope this gives you a small peek into the world of plant breeding and the subsequent evaluation and selection process.

A Crazy Horse

Because we’ve had another mild winter with regard to absolute low temperatures, the foliage on most of our hardy century plants is still looking good. In colder winters, foliar damage is often caused by our wet, cold winters. While we have been consistently cool and extremely wet (it has rained 50% of the days since January 1), the agaves look great…the well-drained soil is the key. We just took this image of Agave ‘Crazy Horse’, which is looking particularly architectural in the winter garden.

Agave Mountain Man – the big moment

We posted this a few weeks ago as our Agave ‘Mountain Man’ (A. gentryi x montana) prepared to open. We’ll, the big moment is here…below are a few shot from today.

The seed were wild-collected in Mexico in the late 1990s by our friends at Yucca Do, and our seedling was planted in May 2000, so it took 17 years to flower.  Fingers crossed for good seed set, and fortunately we have many more agaves in flower (and a tall ladder) to help the process.