Agave, asparagus botanically related

12-agaveHave you ever noticed how the emerging flower stalk of an agave resembles an asparagus spear? It turns out that both agave and asparagus are in the same botanical family (Asparagaceae). Agave, however, dies after it flowers, while asparagus will pleasantly persist for years, giving you steady crops of edible spears.

If you refrain from harvesting asparagus spears, they will flower and produce seeds. Some people recommend growing edible asparagus even if you don’t harvest it because of its ornamental appeal. Unharvested spears grow into 4- to 6-foot extravaganzas that include ferny foliage and attractive flowers. At any time, however, you may choose to start harvesting the spears, bearing in mind that an asparagus patch may continue to be productive for up to 50 years.

Sandy Sand, who lives in West Hills, sent a picture of an emerging agave flower stalk, which may be the fastest growing appendage in the entire botanical kingdom. Agave stalks grow as tall as 40 feet in a period of less than a month. Often, these stalks produce bulbils, or plantlets, at the base of each flower. Bulbils may be removed and planted out but, even without doing so, the mother agave invariably leaves pups or baby agaves around its base so its perpetuation is never in doubt. Incidentally, the classic agave known as century plant (Agave americana) does not take a century to produce a flower and die, but usually flowers and expires not long after it reaches 10 years of age.

Thanks to Geoff Stein, I was privileged to encounter another asparagus family member, one that I had never seen before. Stein grows an unparalleled collection of succulents, cycads and palms on an ordinary sized lot in Tarzana. Hundreds of uncommon species live cheek by jowl in this horticultural oasis. Close to his front door, luxuriating in a flower pot, is a magnificent variegated ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata ‘Variegata’). Sometimes referred to as elephant’s foot on account of its fat trunk base, variegated ponytail palm has a fresh and bright mien that creates the perfect welcome to both guests and visitors who happen by.

Suzie Yalda, who lives in Agoura Hills, sent a picture of a Mexican grass tree (Dasylirion longissimum), also displaying a remarkable flower stalk, if not as tall and as rapidly growing as an agave’s. Although it, too, is a member of the asparagus family and shares the agave’s habitat and takes many years to flower, Mexican tree grass does not die after it blooms. It is native to the Chihuahuan Desert and can endure considerable drought, although it will grow more rapidly with regular water. Unlike agave, individual flowers of Mexican grass tree do not shoot up overnight but develop slowly. In Yalda’s case, she has been observing her flower’s elongation for the past six months. Only now has it begun to bloom.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is another plant from the Chihuahuan Desert. It is flowering abundantly at this moment on a corner of the Los Angeles Valley College campus in Valley Village, at the intersection of Burbank Boulevard and Fulton Avenue. Based on my experience with red yucca, I can only say that very fast draining soil is its best friend and that any impediment to soil drainage will quickly lead to its demise.

If you wish to see a demonstration of maximum flowering capability when it comes to a drought-tolerant plant, you need to pay a visit to the corner of Lindley Avenue and Topham Street in Tarzana. There you will bear witness to a massive rock rose (Cistus sp.) planting that appears to be thriving on rain water alone. Of course, I could be wrong and there could conceivably be some sprinklers or drip tubing involved in conveyance of water to this flowery corner of the Valley. Yet the very fact that rock rose is growing so well here points to its lack of supplemental irrigation. I know in the heat of summer it is difficult to resist watering plants of any description, yet summer irrigation of Mediterranean climate plants — from rock rose to woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) — is their downfall. If this rock rose planting were watered more than once a month in hot weather, I doubt it would be thriving as it is today.

Q: Last year’s amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) rose from a new bulb in a pot, bloomed and died back, but the leaves remained. This year, it threw two tall flowers one after the other. My question is: if I plant them in the ground, should I split the bulb in two parts before planting, and should I wait until the plant dies back before planting?
— Dan Biles, San Marino

A: I would definitely wait until leaves have shriveled before planting. As long leaves are green, they continue to produce carbohydrate that is sent down to bulbs to fatten them up for next year’s flowers. I would not split your bulb unless by splitting you mean separating two attached, yet clearly individual and distinct, bulbs.

Q: We have planted new plants and the neighborhood squirrels continually dig them up. How can we prevent that from happening?
— Gene Kirschenbaum, North Hills

A: You might want to investigate installing a motion sprinkler or two. Motion sprinklers operate on the same principle as motion lights except instead of a light going on in response to movement, a pulsating sprinkler erupts, much to the squirrel’s chagrin. You can find motion sprinklers at some home improvement centers and through Internet sources.

Another option is to adopt an active dog or cat. A romping backyard pet will generally keep squirrels and other rodents away. Finally, you can investigate live animal traps such as those carried by Havahart, 800-800-1819 (Havahart.com) and Tomahawk, 800-272-8727 (livetrap.com). However, you should first consult with your local animal control agency before trapping any live animal.

Tip of the week

If you have not yet mulched your garden, now is the time. Before summer’s heat sets in, bare soil should be covered with mulch in the form of compost, wood chips or any other organic material. Mulch not only minimizes evaporative water loss from the soil surface, it also prevents weeds and maintains vital soil microbial life, even while enhancing soil nutrient levels.

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