Originating in Mexico, this succulent is closely related to Sisal (Agave sisalana) and has a similar appearance. Like Sisal, it is cultivated for the fibre in its leaves. It develops a thick central stem, to which are attached long fleshy, sword-shaped leaves in an encircling, spiral arrangement. The leaves are greyish, and the leaf margins are armed with sharp spines.
Although slower growing than Sisal, it has a much longer lifespan, lasting fifteen to twenty years compared to only around eight for Sisal. It is typically 2 to 3 m (7to 10 ft) tall and, at the end of its life, produces a single flower spike that grows 7 to 8 m (23 to 26 ft) tall, straight up from the centre of the plant. In its final spring and summer, large creamy-white, bell-shaped flowers bloom at the top of the spike.
It rarely produces seed. Instead, numerous small plantlets follow the flowers on the tall spike. Commonly known as bulbils, they are complete plants in themselves that can be removed from the spike and planted directly in the soil.
The fibre is similar to Sisal's but is somewhat weaker and has a slightly lighter off-white colour. However, like Sisal, it is used where a strong, coarse fibre is required, such as in the manufacture of rope, cordage, rugs, carpets, upholstery backing and as pulp for the manufacture of speciality paper products, such as banknotes and other durable paper products. It is also used in woven craft in its native range and nowadays is transformed into fashionable accessories, including high-quality woven handbags and beach bags.
It is sometimes cultivated in gardens as an ornamental for its form and colour. Still, it is usually located where its spines are unlikely to inflict injury or is intentionally cultivated as a barrier to unwanted intruders.
Grows naturally in sub-humid tropical lowland climates, generally areas with annual lows of 17 to 25°C, annual highs of 26 to 36°C, annual rainfall of 500 to 1400 mm and a dry season of 4 to 9 months.
Suckers sprouting from the plant base can be dug up and re-planted directly, but bulbils should be grown out in a nursery for around a year before planting out. Potting mixes used to grow bulbils in the nursery should be fertile and quick-draining. Watering may be required during dry spells to ensure their survival and development.
Performs best on free-draining sand or loam soils with a slightly acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 8.5, and on sites with full sun exposure. It is intolerant of waterlogging.
The leaves of mature plants can be harvested year-round for their fibre, beginning when they are around four to six years old. Plants raised from bulbils reportedly produce more fibre than plants from suckers.
It is listed as a weed in at least one reference publication. Still, there does not appear to be any record of it as a serious weed anywhere. Although similar to Sisal in its reproduction, it has a much longer reproductive cycle, making it less likely to develop into a weed.
The leaf margins have sharp spines that can cause serious injury or harm to the unwary.
Dewey, L. H. 1943, Fiber production in the western hemisphere, U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington D.C.
Litzenberger, S. C. 1974, Guide for field crops in the tropics and the subtropics, Office of Agriculture, Technical Assistance Bureau, Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington D.C.
Perkins, K. D. & Payne, W. 1981, Guide to the poisonous and irritant plants of Florida, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Gainesville, Florida
Purseglove, J. W. 1981, Tropical crops: Monocotyledons, Longman, Harlow, London
Randall, R. P. 2002, A global compendium of weeds, R.G. and F.J. Richardson Press, Melbourne
Randall, R. P. 2007, The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status, Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, Glen Osmond, South Australia
Wood, I. M. 1997, Fibre crops : new opportunities for Australian agriculture, Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QLD DPI), Brisbane
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