by Bruce Brethauer
In a genus which is characterized by its strikingly bold and attractive plants, Agave victoriae-reginae is arguably the most attractive species. There are approximately 200 to 250 species of Agave in the world, these occurring in Central America, the Caribbean Islands, Southwestern United States and Central and Tropical South America - although a number of species are widely grown commercially, and as ornamentals in Australia, Africa, India, and in Mediterranean Europe. The species and varieties vary considerably in size, ranging from rosettes of about 4 inches or so in Agave megalacantha nana, to plants measuring to 10 feet in height and 13 feet in diameter in Agave americana. The agaves are monocarpic, with each rosette flowering only once, and then dying (the Sempervivum, alias "Hens and Chicks" are also monocarpic). The Agaves take many years before they flower, typically two decades or more, accounting for their common name of "The Century Plant", based on the erroneous belief that many species flowered just once in 100 years.
Plants of Agave victoriae-reginae are nearly stemless, producing tight clusters of spiraling, succulent leaves. The overall appearance of the plant is reminiscent of an large, hemispherical artichoke, only more attractively marked. Mature plants may measure to about 20 to 27 inches across, and nearly as tall; each leaf measures about 6 to 8 inches in length, and to about 2½ inches wide, and ends in one, two, or three sharp terminal spines. Each leaf has a white horny ridge along its margins, and along the keels on its underside, and also bears persistent chalky white outlines from where the keels of adjacent leaves contacted the upper leaf surface during its development (these are the equivalent of the "leaf impressions" to be found in other species of agave). These white markings and rims distinguish this species from all other agave species, although similar markings may be also be present in hybrids with this species. Plants are typically solitary, but on occasion, some individuals may produce a few offsets.
Typical of most other agaves, each rosette will flower only once in its lifetime, producing a massive flowering spike which can grow to about 13 feet in height, and produce hundreds and perhaps even thousands of 1½ inch tubular cream colored flowers with red to purplish tints. Following pollination, hundreds of small spherical fruits are produced, each containing many flat, black seeds. I estimate that a single plant may produce in excess of 10,000 seed. Shortly after flowering, the plant dies. Plants in cultivation often grow 15 to 20 or more years before flowering - sometimes, considerably longer. Society member Vera Norman relates that she grew one plant about 30 years before it flowered. Her plant set seed, many of which she shared with me and other members of the Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society. The seeds germinated and grew well. Over the years, I have given away, traded and sold most of these seedlings, but kept a single plant for my own collection. It has grown surprisingly fast over the years: today it more than fills an 8 inch pot, and continues to produce good growth each summer: by next season, I will probably need to repot it into a 10 inch pot.
Agave victoriae-reginae is common in cultivation, both as a potted plant, and (in warmer regions of the American southwest) as a garden perennial. It is easy to grow, generally growing best when observing the basic rules for growing cacti and other succulents, with a few minor considerations. First of all, I have found that this species requires deep watering, as its roots may tend to die back if the plant is subjected to extended drought - even when watering the plant during its period of dormancy, give it a thorough watering. Also, this species seems to fare best when kept cool through its winter dormancy, and should probably be kept where temperatures can regularly fall to 50 or even 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It comes from regions with relatively cool winters, and (if kept absolutely dry) will survive frosts down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It is being tested in plantings in Denver, Colorado, and preliminary results of those tests suggests that at least some plants may survive even colder temperatures still. In the low deserts of Arizona and California, plants will require occasional deep watering in the summer, and may benefit from a degree of shading from late afternoon sun - but in all other regions, Agave victoriae-reginae will require as much sun as possible, and potted specimens should be moved outdoors in the spring as soon as temperatures permit, to benefit from the increased exposure to light.
Agave victoriae-reginae is native to the Mexican states of Coahuila, Durango, and Nuevo León. While its range is relatively wide, it occurs in widely scattered populations: it has never been a common plant in habitat. Over-collection of wild specimens, and habitat loss has reduced its numbers, and today, it is protected, being declared "in danger of extinction" in the wild. It is nevertheless a common plant in desert landscapes and in succulent collections. It is easy to grow this species from seed when this is available, and many nurseries regularly propagate plants in good numbers. They grow fairly rapidly, and can be grown to a marketable size in a few short years- either under greenhouse conditions, or field grown for landscaping stock. If you grow this species, and should it ever flower, allow the seed capsules to ripen, and collect the seed when the capsules split open. The seed can be shared with members of local cactus and garden societies, or can be donated to Cactus and Succulent seedbanks, such as the CSSA seed depot to distribute seed to those who may wish to propagate additional plants, or you may try to grow some yourself. Propagating from plants in cultivation will reduce the demand for field collected plants, and may ease pressures on threatened or endangered populations in the wild.
Agave victoriae-reginae is my favorite Agave - it is easy to grow and maintain, its dense, spiraling leaves which are attractively marked in white lines against the dark green background color of its leaves makes this species particularly attractive, and leads us to regard it as one of those "living sculptures" that we so much treasure in our collections. Its rigid leaves tipped in sharp spines are formidable, and are not suited to every household, as it can cause significant injuries to anyone unfortunate enough to blunder into it. Also, if you cannot provide it with bright light (preferably direct sunlight) through its summer growing period, this may not be the plant for you, Otherwise, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in growing agaves.