Boerne Chapter

Steve Lowe suggests May as month of the “maguey lily”

Author: Bill Ward

Steve Lowe, Kendall County Park Naturalist, wrote to say that this spring he has seen more than the usual number of Agave species blooming. He suggests May is a good month to reiterate the attributes of this landscape plant that does so well in Hill Country yards. The following paragraphs are written by Steve.

While the month of April is florally linked to the emergence of the Easter lily, May could welcome another lily flowering, those of Agave (maguey in Spanish).

Landscape photograph of agave plants in the foreground, with tall trees in the background
Bloom stalks of Agave americana.

Along with Yucca, these dominant landscape specimens are sometimes referred to as “woody lilies” and are botanically kin to true lilies. However, to most of us, agaves look more like succulent cactus or artichokes on steroids.

One other common name for maguey is “Century Plant,” referring to its latent flower habit. Because they are monocarpic, flowering only once in their life, it may seem like a 100-year event. Most species require no more than 8 to 10 years to mature and send up a mast-like flower scape. For some reason, perhaps our recent drought, I have noticed more blooming this spring than ever.

Agave is native from our Southwest through Mexico and Central America. Over 200 species are known, ranging in size from 10- to 12-foot giants to dwarfs easily kept in pots. Most are easily grown in sunny, xeric conditions with good drainage.

In Texas only 4 or 5 species are thought to be native, but magueys have been valued and transplanted by man prior to historic cultivation. Young plants form basal shoots and can be broken off and easily transplanted. Carbon dating has suggested maguey processing for food, drink, and fiber by Pre-Columbian settlements in Sonora and Arizona.

Image of Agave stalk
Agave flowers.

Prior to colonizing Mexico’s Central Valley, the Aztecs consumed both “aquamiel” (“honeywater”) and the fermented version, pulque. Later, the Spanish refined the process to produce mescal and tequila. All of these beverages are extracts from the terminal leaf bud. Of greater economic importance, fiber from the leaves, sisal, was found to make the finest rope known before synthetics. Agave sissalana was exported to East Africa and the Philippines to expand its cultivation base in the 1800s.

Agaves make fine landscape subjects, keeping some design basics in mind:

1. Scale and placement: Most species will grow to considerable size and are armed with potentially dangerous spines. Place them away from high traffic areas, removed from pets and children. Spines can be clipped with stout pruners.

2. Cold tolerance: Select landscape species that tolerate Hill Country winters, or plan to shelter tender subjects in pots.

Plants suitable for landscapes: Agave americana (several varieties), A. bracteosa, A. filifera, A. harvardiana, A. lechuguilla, A. lophantha, A. neomexicana, A. ochahui, A. parryi (several varieties), A. salmiana, A. scabra, A. schidigera, A. striata, A. victoria-reginae, and A. weberi.

Useful as container subjects: A. attenuate, A. bracteosa, A. demettiana, A. geminiflora, A. ocahui, A. parrasana, A. schidigera, and A. victoria-reginae.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason