A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
IF YOU HAD ONE
in your conservatory, you had bragging rights, says Brian Kemble, curator at the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery, of the spectacular allure that followed giant agaves to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. “It is a plant of the New World; it wasn’t known overseas until Columbus brought it back,” he says. “Owning one became a status symbol.”
Today it falls more into the cult favorite category, with its toothsome, waxy leaves outstretched up to 10 feet across and once-in-a-lifetime flowering spear reaching skyward as high as eight feet. Farmers in its native Mexico put this imposing stature to work, using the big leviathans as field dividers to keep cattle at bay, Kemble says. Europeans took them out of the fields and put them on special coins as far north as Scandinavia.
Today, waterwise gardeners are using the plants as decorative exclamation points. For examples, look to the flamboyant Madame Ganna Walska’s Lotusland in Santa Barbara and The Huntington Botanical Gardens in Southern California. And, of course, the storied giants collected by Ruth Bancroft, who often posed next to them (below), like a shiny small penny for scale. “She was partial to that plant,” Kemble says.
And with water needs that belie its titan size—rarely more than what nature provides— what’s not to embrace?