The fibrous plants in this family (Agavaceae) are famous for growing slowly, requiring little water and possessing a shallow root system. These characteristics make them ideal not only for homeownwers who don’t like to garden, but for those who, with limited space, must grow everything in containers.
People associate agaves with formidable spines, as stand-offish as cactus. This stereotype is fostered by the century plant (Agave americana), which does indeed develop 6-foot barbed wire leaves and is unapproachable when mature.
Although many other agaves develop spines, at least two that I know of have smooth leaves and make fine living sculptures. The first is Agave attenuata, familiar to most Angelenos for its soft pale green, rosetted leaves and 10- to 15-foot arching flower spikes. Plant this agave on one side of a walkway and witness its annual transformation into an Arc de Triomphe. Agave
vilmoriniana, the octopus agave, has smooth, twisting tentacles for leaves.
For dramatic entries or accents, no plants can compete with spear lilies (Doryanthes Palmeri) and New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax). These members of the agave family are masses of green or bronze or purple projectiles, up to 10 feet in height and, to be appreciated, must be seen in a mature landscape or large container.
Some people are frightened by these plants at full size; if you are of a timid nature or partial to low-growing plants, stay away from them. The ”small is beautiful” crowd should consider New Zealand flax varieties that grow to less than half the size of the species and produce rainbow- colored foliage. These fancier types, however, are not as hardy as their larger cousins, and must be grown in light shade to keep their leaves from turning back to an ordinary green.
Yuccas are agave kinsmen that are probably familiar to all, especially the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the giant yucca (Yucca elephantipes). Trunk bases of the latter resemble elephant feet, as do trunk bases of another relation, Beaucarena recurvata, which is called either “elephant-foot tree” or “ponytail” – on account of its distinctive hairdo. The Joshua tree takes full sun and has pointed leaves, while the giant yucca, a mainstay of many older landscapes, has soft foliage but needs heat protection to flourish. The ponytail is suitable for both garden and container use, and grows well both outside and indoors.
If you have a cactus garden that is a bit too forbidding, you can provide a contrastingly inviting look – without compromising on drought tolerance – with the help of Mexican grass trees (Dasylirion longissima and Nolina longifolia). Even children will be drawn to their billowy outbursts of leaves.
The sturdiest indoor plants belong to the agave family. Foremost among them is the snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), reputed to survive if watered three or four times a year. Snake plants have vertical straps for leaves with wavy horizontal bands; one variety has yellow leaf margins and another, Hahnii, is a dwarf. If you keep your snake plant just this side of abject neglect, you will eventually be rewarded with uncannily fragrant flowers.
Dracaenas are the last, but not the least, of the agaves. If you want a tall, easy-maintenance plant for an indoor, low-light situation, choose Dracaena. The corn plant (Dracaena fragrans Massangeana) has arching leaves bisected by a pale yellow stripe. Dracaena deremensis Warnecki has white- striped leaves, and Dracaena deremensis Janet Craig has solid emerald green leaves; Janet Craig Compacta is a popular, newer variety with small, stiff leaves more reminiscent of a bottlebrush than a corn plant.
After bristlecone pines and redwood trees – which are native to California – the next-oldest living plants are the dragon trees (Dracaena draco). On their native Canary Islands – off the coast of northwest Africa – these incredible trees live for more than 1,000 years, reaching a mature height of only 70 feet. In Los Angeles, 10- to 20-inch specimens are encountered every now and then, recognizable by blue-gray mop-head leaf clusters and succulent trunks.
Summer is the best time to plant agaves, since this is the season when they are most actively growing. Fall planting can be a problem since the rain that follows, combined with cessation of growth and cold soil, can lead to root fungus disease.