Stunning gardens without water – Part two: Radical lanscapes – the Agaves
By: Stuart Merelie
IF THERE is one plant which drastically shapes the landscape in the Algarve, Agave Americana, the Century Plant is it. Morbidly obese, as well as being suicidal, ripping its way through stone walls and tarmac, it is, in some ways, the quintessential portrait of wildlife in the Algarve.
My first encounter with Agaves was very bitter-sweet. “Cuidado com as pitas!” screamed Aníbal, my half gypsy, half superman newly appointed helper. Now, I had been in the Algarve about a week and this was the early 80s, so my command of Portuguese was a little limited, although the learning curve was accelerating by the second as I realised that pita wasn’t some kind of Greek bread, but a very spiky cactus that had just tattooed itself into my arm.
I should start again really: this was actually my second encounter with an Agave, the first was a little more gentle, involving several beers too many and an unplanned outdoor snooze – miraculously I had fallen asleep in the middle of a large patch of them and woke up unscathed … but heck, whose counting. Over 300 species of Agave have been discovered, but only around 200 are currently recognised. Most species are monocarpic, although a few can flower several times during their life. The flowers are “perfect” with both male and female parts. Many species of Agave are bat pollinated and produce musky perfumes as attractants. Others produce sweeter odours to attract insects.
Most Agaves consist of rosettes of thick, hard, rigid leaves, often with marginal teeth and usually with a lethally sharp terminal spine. Prolific vegetative growth and offsetting at the base of the plant or through stolons, usually maintains a clump of plants, thus compensating for loss of flowering rosettes. A few species remain solitary, relying on seed production for survival of the species.
The interior of the leaves contains longitudinal fibres representing the vascular system. Agave leaf fibre was used by native Americans. Agave fibre from a range of species is of commercial importance, with the best quality fibre coming from the youngest leaves. Sisal (hemp) made from cultivated Agave sisalana is used to make clothing and rugs.
Century plants are often used for fencing in Mexico and Central America. A dense hedge of these spiny succulents is impermeable to cattle and people. As ornamental, the century plant is usually grown in rock gardens, in cactus and succulent gardens, in Mediterranean-style landscapes or as a specimen. It tends to dominate the landscape wherever it is grown. Century plants are also grown in containers, where it stays much smaller than its outdoor brethren. Keep it in a cool, frost-free area in winter and put it out on the balcony or patio in summer. Century plant should only be watered in the summer.
You can hug this one! Native to the plateau of central Mexico and one of the unarmed Agaves, it is good as a more unusual ornamental plant in your garden. After flowering, the flower spike, which grows to around 1.5m (five feet) will die, but suckers from the new plant will form at the bottom of the old plant, meaning it will continue to grow in your garden.
Carbohydrates stored in the core of several species of Agave, principally Agave tequiliana were fermented by native Americans to make a beverage called pulque, which was used in religious ceremonies. Distillation of a similar ferment, made from the developing Agave flower bud, is the basis for modern production of Mescal. Only if made from the Blue Agave, within the Tequila region of Mexico, can the distillate be called Tequila. There are other regional drinks and local homebrews distilled from Agave sap. These include sotol, bacanora and raicilla, as well as some simply referred to by the traditional name of mezcal. Many of these regional drinks have only recently been legalised for production in Mexico and are gaining new acceptance, although distribution is still very limited. Me, I think I’ll stick to my medronho (Portuguese brandy).
All succulents mentioned in the article are available at QM Garden Centre and readers are invited to visit. QM is located on the road in between Santa Bárbara de Nexe and Estoi. For visitors further away, leave the Algarve motorway at Junction 14 (signposted São Bras\Faro) and turn left immediately then, after 500m, left again. The 18-hole crazy golf course is open all winter. QM is open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 3pm Saturday. There are now two new 200 square metre retail areas available with water and electricity to rent at a very reasonable price.
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