the agave defense

This weekend I was able to remove a “century plant” from a container in our backyard, but not without considerable effort. This plant (agave americana) has some unusual properties, including a few that make its removal from the landscape pretty tough. First, let’s describe some good things about the plant; it is visually striking – a dusty turquoise color, with long serrated and spiked leaves and (eventually) a tall flower spike that can be 25 ft tall, it wants no additional water than what it gets from the rainy season, the fibers in the leaves can be used to make things, and the stem and heart of the plant can produce a nectar that can be used as a sweetener. For us however, this plant was too large and aggressive for our small space. The spikes at the end of each leaf are very sharp – the plant can spread out very wide, even in our container it was about 5 ft. wide at the base, and so the leaves were quite close to the paths in our yard. I always had to be very careful when gardening around this plant, to avoid getting spiked by the leaves. And visually, this plant was dominating our backyard. In a larger space it wouldn’t have been as overpowering. So I’ve removed it.

I started by trimming off the leaves with a pruning saw – since we’re at the end of the rainy season, they were kind of heavy with stored water. Then I cut the leaves into smaller pieces, so that they might not cause problems for the recycling/compost process. That left me with the heart of the plant still in the container, and that was a real struggle to extract. I kept trimming the bulk of it down, but eventually there weren’t any leaf parts left to get at with my little saw. So I started digging in around it, then sawing through its many tentacles of roots to release it from the container. The root structure of this plant is very strange. It has long, inch-thick rope-like strands that were winding all around the inside edges of the container, with many thinner roots connecting the base of the plant to the long strands at the edges. Those longer strands looked like reservoirs or something – they had a lot of water in them, and the thinner connecting strands were tough and dry. And below that there were a lot of dried-out versions of the reservoir strands. They were all woven together, looking very much like a basket – they conformed to the shape of the container.

The agave did its best to defend itself against removal. I’ve mentioned the spike and spines that each leaf has – when I’d trimmed all of those off, I put my hand on the top of the plant for leverage when digging around it, not realizing that one proto-spike was still there, right in the center. There’s a dark bruise on my hand where that poked through (I was wearing good gloves). And the fluid in the plant, which I’d presumed to be mostly water, and can be fermented to become a syrup, is a fairly strong acid. I must have gotten some of that on my left forearm – it’s all red.

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