There are many hundreds of species of Agaves, most which are either very rare or still rather unobtainable. And of the several hundred that are more readily available, most are moderate to pretty large plants. If one’s first experiences with Agaves included some of these really common, huge, often aggressively suckering and, frankly, dangerous plants, one might be a bit turned off by Agaves by now. However, there are a number of much smaller, manageable species that do not only take up relatively little room but make excellent and quite beautiful smaller potted specimens. At least you might give these ones a try.
Agave americana 'Cornelius' is a great smaller plant monstrose form of the original large version (left); Agave filifera 'Plain Jane' is another monstrose small version great for pots (right)
If one has the fortunate opportunity to see a large cactus/succulent show, one will probably see many of these wonderful smaller species, as these littler plants are much more practical to drag from show to show. One can keep the larger plants in smaller pots and force them to stay relatively small, but eventually they suffer from their cramped housing and begin to look less than healthy (though they are amazingly tolerant of such abuse for years sometimes). Some of these smaller species are among the most beautiful of all the rosette succulents.
Most Agaves are fairly easy-to-grow species and do not require much work after being well situated in a nice sturdy pot. Other than water, some rare fertilizing efforts, and removal of dead leaves (the hardest part), care of potted or planted agaves is very little work. They are relatively resistant to most diseases, nutritional deficiencies and even trauma. Repotting agaves is very easy, too.
Probably the main problem one may encounter with potted agaves is over (and sometimes under) watering. Like many succulent species agaves are prone to rot if overwatered. However, in an outdoor situation and in a climate that is fairly arid and warm (eg Mediterranean) these plants seem pretty hard to overwater as well (even I, think king of overwatering, rarely kills an agave this way).
These two smaller species, Agave pelona (left) and Agave utahensis (right) i rotted by overwatering, probably directly on their crowns- sloppy!
these two also died under my care- Agave nizandensis fried in our inland, desert sun (left) and Agave toumeyana was kept in too little light and became weakened and eventually rotted (left)
Some bugs to attack Agaves, though I find mealy bugs to be problems only in larger, garden plants (particularly in the blue species). Agave mite is a problem primarily in cultivation and I do not know how to avoid this bug. Unlike Aloe Mite, I cannot seem to find this bug when dissecting an affected Agave, so I do not know what it looks like. I have a few smaller plants with this infection, but they seem fairly easy to treat with standard bug spray meant for mites (strict insecticides may not work as mites are not insects). The damage shows up only as brownish, defects on the leaves and does not seem to do the overall plant much harm (at least not in the plants I have seen). It is mostly a problem with unsightliness or lack of perfection.
The following is a brief introduction to some of the smaller collectables, but should certainly NOT be looked as an all-inclusive list of small species. These are the ones that are currently fairly easily obtainable, along with a few pretty rare but exciting newer species (in cultivation).
Agave americana monstrose ‘Cornelius’ (often called Agave ‘Cornelius’): I am not 100% convinced this is an Agave americana as all the other forms of this plant are enormous, suckering plants, though I suppose that is what the ‘monstrose’ part is all about. This is a largish small Agave, growing up to nearly two feet in diameter, but only half as tall, and some are very reluctant to offset, while others do so vigorously (the former are the ones I think are the best). This is a marginate variegated plant with somewhat wavy, irregularly flat leaves ending in a sharp spine and having small but sharp teeth along the edges. It makes a pretty good potted plant, but a wonderful, odd, showy landscape plant as well. Offsets, if produced, tend to be right along side the base of the plant (not ten feet away as can happen with other forms of Agave americana).
Agave americana varigatata marginata monstrose (aka Agave 'Cornelius') growing in a botanical garden (left) and in a pot in my yard (right)
Agave ‘Bloodspot’ (aka Mangave ‘Blood Spot’): before the genus Manfreda was lumped into Agave, this was considered an intergeneric hybrid, which it really is no longer. The parentage of this plant are unclear, though the Agave is probably macroacantha. Which Manfreda is involved has not been published as far as I can tell. This smaller, nonsuckering compact plant is one of the most beautiful of all the smaller Agaves and is an excellent potted plant as well as a landscape specimen for smaller, open areas. The leaves are toothless ending in a spine and are flattish side to side and fairly straight. They are a variable blue-green with reddish-maroon spotting (hence the name blood spot). When I first found this plant back in 2009 it was pretty rare, but now (2012) they are showing up in large numbers at garden outlet stores and are very affordable.
Agave 'Bloodspot' in my yard (left) and a much older one in another private garden (right)
Agave bracteosa (aka Squid Agave): This species is borderline not-so-small, but is a very collectable species that is certainly much smaller than the average Agave. What makes this plant so nice it is completely ‘user-friendly’, a term I use for plants that are harmless. There are not teeth or even terminal spine on this plant’s leaves. The reason it is called the Squid Agave is it somewhat resembles a marine cephalopod, with its long, thin, wavy arms (tentacles). The plant is pale green with a rough, sandpapery texture and only slightly flexible (do not try to fold this ones leaves as they will just break off). It is a very slow growing species and performs excellently as a potted plant, rarely outgrowing the pot, though it does tend to eventually sucker. It can grow up to three feet in diameter and eighteen inches tall, but tends to stay smaller in a pot. There are striking variegated forms of this species (notably Monterrey Frost) that were extremely rare just 5 years ago, but now can be found at many garden outlet stores thanks to the wonders of tissue culture. As with almost all Agave species, this one is monocarpic (dies after it flowers).
Agave bracteosa on the ground, suckering (left) and a smaller, potted specimen (right)
A nice large planted specimen from the side (left) and one of the larger variegated plants (right) I have seen
Agave filifera ‘Compacta’: This miniature version of Agave filifera actually does not resemble the type species that closely and is one of the best of the small, potted Agaves. This one tends to stay pretty small (I have not seen one larger than a foot across). It has wide deltoids leaves that are straight, flat and end in a very sharp terminal spine. The leaves are a bright green and ornamented with chalky white stripes similar to that of the more well known Agave victoriae-reginae. The leaves of this plant are shorter (hence the name compacta) and have some hairs along their edges. The original Agave filifera is a plant 3-5x as large with long, thin, lance-like leaves and are markedly ‘hairy’.
Agave filifera 'compacta' (left) makes the nearly perfect small potted agave ; right shows another Agave filifera miniature, though much rarer (I do not know if this one even has a name)
Agave filifera subsp. schidigera ‘Shira Ito No Ohi’: this wonderful variegated cultivar is quickly becoming a popular collector’s Agave with its pale yellow-edged leaves and small, manageable size. It is not as compact as the above cultivar, but it has variably hairly leaves and sharp terminal spines like most other Agave filiferas.
Agave filifera supsp. schidigera 'Shira Ito No Ohi' (left) in landscape; close up of potted plant (right)- photo by Kell
Agave isthmensis (aka Dwarf Butterfly Agave): this is sometimes classified as form of Agave potatorum, an extremely variable species, but the most recent classification provides it as its own species. This is a nice pale turquoise to light blue-green plant with wide, toothed leaves with nipple-like projections at the base of each marginal thorn. I find this plant to be extremely easy to grow, both in a pot and in the garden. It eventually reaches a diameter of 18” approximately, though I would no be surprised it can grow a bit larger. This plant tends to hold a lot of leaves (up to 20) and is nicely symmetrical in its rosette shape.
My plant in an 80% sun exposure situation (left); right is a more protected potted specimen of Agave isthmensis showing the characteristic thickness of this specie's leaves
Agave macroacantha aka Black-Spined Agave: this Mexican native is an extremely popular landscape plant in the southwest, and does well as a potted plant, too. It is exceptionally drought tolerant, sun hardy and cold tolerant down to the mid to low 20Fs. It has very stiff, sharply tipped leaves ornamentally adorned with jet black marginal teeth with contrast nicely with the pale blue-green leaves. Plants get about eighteen inches in diameter in any direction, and sucker profusely in the landscape.
Agave macroacantha in landscape in southern California (left); right is a plant showing characteristic nice leaf color changes when begining to flower
Pure species on left, but a very popular and sought after hybrid with Agave victoriae-reginae called Agave 'Green Steel' right. I have not seen these hybrids sucker (yet)
Agave nizandensis: this is rather unique species with leaves that look and feel more Aloe-like rather than like most Agaves. It is a rubbery, naturally variegated plant with only about a half dozen long, bendable, ‘user-friendly’, lanceolate leaves. This is not one of the easier Agaves to keep happy, particular under my careless watering habits. It rots easily, and can burn in full sun if not acclimated well. This is one of those species that seems to prefer plenty of protection from the sun. Most of the plants I have grown have either rotted, or just slowly shrank from lack of water. However, I have seen many doing well in other gardens that have more consistent watering strategies. It supposedly is not one of the more cold hardy species, either (hardly taking any frost at all).
Agave nizandensis in a pot (left) and some overwell shaded plants in the landscape (right)
Agave nizandensis in shaded greenhouse -very nice specimen (left); plant in ground unprotected from snails (this is a really good snail food)
Agave parryi ‘patonii’ variegated: this is a dwarf form of Agave parryi and is often listed or sold as Agave patonii. It is a very slow growing and very slowly offsetting hybrid with strong markings, a very long, black, sharp terminal spine and sharp, hooked teeth along the leaf margins. It tend to grow relatively low to the ground rarely growing over six inches tall though nearly a foot in diameter. Offsets generally show up inches to nearly a foot away. Older plants are prized and can be a bit pricey, though this is a pretty commonly available form. Most grow this one in pots as landscape plants tend to disappear into the environment a bit. Still it performs well as a garden plant and is very durable.
Turns out this plant is actually a dwarf form of Agave applanta known as Agave applanata 'Cream Spike' and not a form of Agave parryi afterall... I will keep you updated if this changes again...
young Agave parryi 'pattonii' of mine in pot (left); older plant (8 years about) in ground (right) having suffered from some Agave mite
show plant showing exceptional variegation
Agave parviflora: This is a small, relatively thin-leaved Agave that somewhat resembles two other agaves on this short list (Agave polyanthiflora and toumeyana ‘Bella’) in having streaked, dagger-like leaves with little to a lot of white ‘hair’ on them. This plant tends to stay solitary, though I have seen photos of suckering specimens. It does not even get as tall as twelve inches and perhaps as wide. Though mine did great in the garden, it sort of got lost among the bigger plants, and would have been much better kept as a potted specimen.
Agave parviflora in my garden, southern California (left) and in plant show (right)
Agave parviflora in garden, Arizona, left (photo Xenomorf); plant in native habitat, Arizona, right (photo by CactusJordi)
Agave petrophila: though a pretty rare species in cultivation, if you can find one, it is certainly worth growing in a pot or small area in the garden. It looks a lot like an Agave striata nana, only with striations more like the larger Agave striata falcate. This plant holds scores of long, thin, dagger-like, stiff deep blue-green leaves that end in a very sharp spine.
Agave petrophila in plant show, Los Angeles
Agave polianthiflora: as I mentioned already, this plant looks similar to Agave parviflora, with some white leaf markings and variable ‘hairy’ leaf margins (some forms have no hair). The unique characteristic of this small, slow-to-sucker species is it is not necessarily monocarpic (reportedly can flower more than once). Flowers are a brilliant red to pink and allow differentiation of this species from Agave parviflora (much less interesting flowers).
Agave polianthiflora in garden, San Diego county, California (left) and in Huntington Gardens collection (right)
Flowers of two similar agaves, Agave polianthiflora, showing thick purple stem (left, photo by CactusJordi); and thin green stem of Agave parviflora (right)
Agave potatorum (aka Agave verschaffeltii): this highly variable Mexican species is one of the most commonly grown potted and smaller landscape Agaves in cultivation. Plants can vary in size from fairly small (see one of the cultivars listed separately below) only three to five inches in diameter, to medium sized (over two feet in diameter). Colors can also vary from pale blue (nearly white) to deep turquoise or a pale green. It is a very durable and tolerant species of a wide variety of environmental extremes, from full, hot inland sun, to coastal shade. One of the characteristics that often tell this species is the nipple-like projections along its leaves that the teeth originate from. Some forms have much more exaggerated 'nipples' than others.
'typical' Agave potatorum in plant show (left) and plants sold as Agave verschaffeltii (right)
exceptionally large, older specimens in a botanical garden (left); right is an exceptionally pale specimen
Agave potatorum 'verschaffeltii' again (left); right is a squat, thick-leaved somewhat miniature form only about 4" in diameter
Agave potatorum of exceptional blue color (left); right is a stressed lime-green form with red teeth
Agave potatorum ‘Kichiokan’ varieties (several): these are small, variegated forms of Agave potatorum, a highly variable species (see above) with very small cultivars to forms over two feet in diameter. None of the forms are huge, but some I would not classify as small, either. But this nicely variegated cultivar (variable variegation depending on the cultivar form) is a pretty easy, hardy plant to grow. It is a dull green plant with short, wide leaves, exaggerated ‘nipples’ along the leaf margins and variegation of pale green.
Agave potatorum 'Kichiokans, in pot (left) and landscape (right)
Another show plant (left) and an exceptionally large, nice landscape plant (right)
Agave potatorum ‘Shoji Rajin’: this is an even smaller, somewhat monstrose form of Agave with extremely blunted, flat leaves of pale green. Marginal spines are quite small and this form suckers profusely. It is a great potted plant, but only good for landscaping in this smallest, neatest, low growing gardens.
Agave 'Shoji Rajin' in pot (left) and landscape (right)
Agave 'Shoji Rajin' variegated in various degrees in sunlight (a lot of sun- left) and well protected (right)
Agave pumila: This extremely slow growing Agave is a collectors choice, not only because larger specimens take so long to obtain, but because it is a unique and quite attractive species. It has very thick, stiff, deltoid, toothless leaves that are a pale grey-turquoise color and end in a very sharp spine. Younger plants have very blunted leaves and these plants almost look and feel fake. Few grow this is the garden as it is so small (unless very old) and a bit prone to rot from overhead watering.
Agave pumila in Huntington collection (left) and in my own collection (right)
exceptional Agave pumilas in show (left) and very old, perfect plant in landscape (right) nearly sixteen inches in diameter
Agave titanota var. 'Felipe Otero': there is still some debate over whether this is truly a form of Agave titonota, but it seems pretty clear now that it is. This is a pale green-leaf form of Agave titanota (a very variable species that comes in a large variety of sizes and colors, from pale blue, to grey to bright green, to dull, pale green etc.). This form is recognized by its very short, wide, somewhat monstrose-looking leaves and oversized, gnarled, widely spaced marginal teeth. It makes a great potted plant and curiosity item. Plants of this form of Agave titanota rarely grow over one foot in height or width.
Agave titanota 'Felipe Otero' when I first got it (left), and 6 years later (right) suckering and overfilling pot
Agave stricta var. nana (aka Hedgehog Agave): this plant differs from the type species in having much shorter and somewhat wider leaves of very pale yellow-green. The leaves have no marginal spines and are usually straight, though some forms droop just a bit. It appears that this plant is not universally monocarpic and some have had plants bloom repeatedly (though perhaps not the same rosette each time).
Agave stricta 'nana' in southern California
Agave stricta 'nana' in Pakistan (left, photo cactus_lover) and normal Agave stricta in southern California for comparison of plant form
Agave toumeyana var. bella: this is indeed a ‘bella’ Agave (means beautiful) with many many short, narrow, dagger-like leaves (sometimes curved a bit unlike the similar Agave parviflora and polianthifolia). Leaves are filiferous (have white marginal fibers or ‘hairs’). This form of Agave toumeyana looks very little like the type species, which is nearly 3-4x as large, has much fewer leaves, most that are strongly arching in one direction or another, and have much less fiber on them. This species I have found is extremely easy to grow, hardy and makes a wonderful potted plant.
Agave toumeyana 'bella' in my garden (left) and in a plant show (right)
Agave univittata (aka lophantha) ‘Quadricolor’: this plant for some reason does not seem to attain the size of the type species, which itself is not that large an Agave, either, but does not really mean it is small. ‘Quadricolor’ plants have three distinct colors (dark green, light green and bright yellow… not really sure how the name quadricolor came about (tricolor would be better) though sometimes there is a hint of a yellow-green stipe, too. Plants have closely spaced, very sharp marginal spines along the edges of short, somewhat spoon-shaped leaves. Newly opened leaves sometimes have a nice, deep red color to the spines (perhaps that is the fourth color?).
Agave univittata 'Quadricolors in cultivation (lower left in Pakistan- photo by cactus_lover)
Agave utahensis: there are multiple varieties of this species, and most are worthy of pot and garden culture, though some are particularly outstanding. The two most collected and displayed varieties are ebrospina and nevadaensis. The former is generally a pale green plant with exaggerated long terminal spines while the latter is a more blue-green plant with more exaggerated marginal teeth (though some plants also have a pretty long terminal spine). Location is probably the main difference between the two and I cannot always tell the two apart. The leaf texture is rough similar to that of shark skin. These plants are extremely drought tolerant and I have found them difficult potted plants mostly because I am always tempted to overwater them. But most astute growers find them relatively easy plants. Well grown specimens almost invariably are in the running for winning succulent shows. Plants rarely grow more than twelve to eighteen inches in diameter, though I have some photos of larger plants in nature.
Agave utahensis var utahensis (left) and Agave utahensis var. nevadaensis (right)
Agaves utahensis var. ebrospina (right is one with exceptionally long spines- a real collector's item)
Agave utahensis var. kabaibensis variegated (left); right was just identified as Agave utahensis... I cannot really tell these apart that well
Agave victoria-reginae: this is an extremely popular potted and landscape agave thanks to its incredible symmetry, ease of growth, and striking color patterns. It is also one of the more user-friendly species, having only a small, blunting terminal spine. Well grown older plants form almost a nearly perfect sphere. Some forms border on the upper limits of what I would call a small agave, but it certainly is a compact species. There are some unbelievable and striking variegated forms and varieties with different ‘normal white’ markings.
normal, though exceptionally nice, form of Agave victoriae-reginae left; right is an unnamed form with many 'extra' lines on the leaves
left is a profusely suckering cultivar called Agave victoriae-reginae 'Snow Princess'; right is my own 'Golden Princess' form
in my opinion, this cultivar, sometimes called Agave victoriae-reginae 'White Rhino', is the most beautiful and striking of them all