Friday, April 4, 2014

Coastal Agave

One of my favorite books from my younger days has a poem with the line, “All that is gold does not glitter”. I would turn that around for Coastal, or Shaw’s, Agave and say, all that is drab is not as dull as it seems. Sometimes one just has to wander around until they see things in the proper light.

Coastal agave, i.e., Agave shawii is a succulent with closely spaced, overlapping sword-shaped leaves that measure up to 8 inches wide and about 18 inches long. They diverge from the center of the plant in a spiral making for a rounded shape. The deep green leaves are edged with spines.

These spines nominally appear as brown or gray and don't offer much in the way of a visual display. However, in early morning or late afternoon, when the the sunlight comes in from behind the plant, they light up and glow red and/or orange, rivaling any neon sign on the Las Vegas Strip. 
Coastal Agave
Shaw's Agave by Cliff Hutson
The leaves are also notable for bearing the imprint of the spines of the leaves that were in front and back of them when they were clasped together. I find this to be a charming visual element to the plant.

The flowering plant is also attractive. It may take 20 to 40 years before it flowers. But, then yellow blooms, looking much like  a hand of very small bananas, burst out on the top of an 8 to 12 foot stalk resembling an asparagus spear. The flowers attract hummingbirds, bats and bees. When a single plant flowers it dies, but its “pups” or clones will live on.

Bats are a key pollinator of this agave and probably the primary reason for the tallness of the flowering stalk. Bats, save for the few species of vampire bats, can not launch into flight by flapping their wings. they, instead, take off by dropping from a height be it the roof of a cave, bridge, or tall plant with sturdy flowers.


Coastal Agave is found in Baja California. Also native to California, it occurs naturally only in San Diego County, near Border Field State Park. Most of the plants that were there were bulldozed into oblivion by your government while building the boundary wall between the USA and Mexico. However, a few seem to have survived. Other populations exist elsewhere in Southern California, but they were probably planted out in an effort to preserve the plant. I, for one, certainly hope it stays with us.

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