Beautiful inflorescences of the foxtail agave in bloom

A large botanical family, the agaves (Agave spp.) have many uses and grow well in the dry areas of the Southwest and Mexico. The nectar produced from these beautiful plants has become very popular as a sugar and syrup substitute as it has a milder flavor than syrup but is sweeter than honey. The heart of the blue agave (Agave tequilana) is used to make tequila.

The foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) is a common succulent in gardens and along walkways, probably because it is one of the only agaves not armed with spikes on the margins of its leaves. Although a pretty green color, it is fairly unremarkable unless it is flowering, and then it can be quite spectacular.

Like all agaves, these plants must save their energy before they can send up a flower stalk. This may take a long time — perhaps up to 20 years depending on the soil and local environment, thus earning the agaves the common name of century plant.

Beginning in the middle of the foxtail agave (and looking a bit like an asparagus stalk), the flower stem (or inflorescence) shoots upward before gracefully drooping over. Foxtail agave flowers open from the base of the inflorescence first, and are quickly visited by bees and other insects for pollination.

On the flowers, bees will sip nectar and collect pollen — storing it in pollen baskets (or corbicula) on their hind legs. Unlike many of the other agaves, the foxtail agave doesn’t die after it blooms. There are now plenty of these pretty flower stalks to see here around town

— Kelly Stewart, Ph.D. is a postdoc with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Contact her at NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com.

   
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