Two Remarkable, Cold Hardy Agave Species from Northern Arizona

Agave (century plants) are in the top tier of my favorite plants. I enjoy them for their incredible geometric symmetry, their ornamental yet fearsome spination and the remarkable impact their sculptural forms have on the landscape, especially the larger growing species.

The genus is native to North America with the bulk of its species to be found in Mexico. But they also range northward into the southwestern US finding homes in some very cold, higher elevation terrain. Two of my favorite species, Agave parryi, Flagstaff form and Agave utahensis v. kaibabensis are reliably cold hardy to USDA zone 5a given the right growing conditions. Having sought these two species in habitat to collect seed, I have developed a special appreciation for these two plants, especially given the extreme harshness of their environments.

Agave parryi, Flagstaff form is found on the high plateau in several locations south and west of the city of Flagstaff. Flagstaff is a very cold, high elevation location (USDA zone 5a or 4b) with erratic weather and a short growing season. The parryi population where I found the seed I grow, is located at 6,800 ft. elevation a few miles south of the city. This colony is found on the south-facing flanks of a gentle hill with the incredible Oak Creek Canyon visible to the south. Growing in a mixture of clay and black volcanic rock, I found numerous plants, with mature silver rosettes up to 3 ft. in width!

Here, Agave parryi is scattered among stunted Ponderosa pine, Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) and the most remarkable specimens of Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) I’ve ever seen. These ancient trees were only about 12-15 ft. tall but had trucks easily 3 ft. in diameter. The area is so exposed to the harsh sun and wind, dry summers and wickedly cold winters, that all the plants are supremely challenged to grow there.

About 60 miles to the north as the crow flies, passing over Flagstaff and the snowy 12,000+ ft. peaks of the San Francisco Mts. can be found the habitat of another of Arizona’s most remarkable Agave, species, utahensis v. kaibabensis. It is growing on the rolling plains (elevation 5,000 ft.) through which the deepening canyon of the Little Colorado River winds its way west to join the Grand Canyon. I was amazed by the size of the mature var. kaibabesis plants; the stout, rather narrow olive green leaves making rosettes 30 inches wide.

This is nearly twice as large as any other A. utahensis form. Never abundant, theseAgave plants are scattered among low growing sage, Ephedra and other shrubs. As I was walking across the hills, I made a startling discovery, finding one huge cluster after another of the rare Echinocactus xeranthemoides scattered through the sage. These cacti are clearly quite old as it takes many, many years (under the best of conditions) for this species to mature. The largest multi-headed specimens are growing out of rock ledges looking down over the Little Colorado’s vertical canyon walls. Finding these incredible Echinocactus and Agave specimens thriving in this incredibly harsh, scenic country was a thrill I’ll never forget.

9 thoughts on “Two Remarkable, Cold Hardy Agave Species from Northern Arizona”

  • Kathy Dye

    Reading this entry made me wish my snowdrifts were melted and I could head ito the high country to do some exploring on my own

    A couple of years ago, in the mountains here , a friend and I found some very large pediocactus growing out of rounded boulders that were massive. Most of those cactus in this country are small; about 3 to 4 inches in diameter and about as tall. These, however were about 8 or 9 inches tall and at least 6 inches in diameter. I have never been able to get into the country where they live early enough in the season to see them bloom because of the snow and the run off that follows, but they are still amazing.

    • David Salman

      Kathy, the thrill of seeing interesting plants in their habitat is always a memorable event. I love growing many different Pediocacti but have never had the privilege of seeing large specimens in the wild.

      Thank goodness for our vast and wonderful western wildlands where these plants live unaffected by the hand of man.

  • vince

    I bought a agave parryi from high country gardens 2 years ago its now the size of a softball, I live in Metro Detroit I also bought a Agave utahensis v.kaibabensis and its still a small seedling but survived here in our winter both of my agaves i do not protect from our cold snowy wet winters. Thank you Dave for introducing high desert plants to places that they are alien too, And Look so cool in Michigan landscape!
    Vince

    • David Salman

      Vince:
      How interesting that you've been growing these cold hardy Agave in Michigan; that's a long way from home for them!

      I'm pleased to hear that they are surviving the cold Mid-Western winters and continuing to grow. These special plants are worth the effort.

  • Debi

    Wow, is all I can say. I live in Flagstaff and have been dared by our elements and bizarre growing season to make a semi-xeric garden in my dirt encrusted, ponderosa pine covered piece of land. No lawn, (years of California lawns and huge water bills deterred us), snow, high winds and extreme UV rays can be enemies. But just find the right plants and you make friends with the harsh elements. I have a lilac bush that made it through this last winter, 138 inches of snow. I'm thinking that maybe what this little piece of Flagstaff needs is some agave to keep it looking native. We've only grown native plants so far and they seem to love the cold winter for hibernation. Thanks for this article, I'm excited to try some agave now!!

  • Chris

    My Agaves have been through their third winter here in the mountains of West Virginia. I purchased parryi and havardiana.
    They have survived the wet and cold, are looking great, and have produced pups as well. Can't wait until these living sculptures gain even more size on them.

    I tried a utahensis last year and it has made it through. Although we didn't have as many bekow zero times this past winter, we have had SO MUCH snow.

    A friend sent me a Salman version of parryi, and just put it in my sempervivum bad last week. Beautiful plants!

    I also have my special needs student in on these plants. We're starting a hardy cacti and succulent bed at our school. These kids never knew we could grow things like this around here.

  • Joseph M Moran

    I also have just purchased purchased parryi and havardiana. I am concerned about the heavy snows of my 5b zone garden. Do you think that if I place a ventilated plastic cup over the plants they will be adequately protected from wet snow? I also just planted claret cup cacti "White Sands" and wish to also protect them. They are all in a raised South facing bed, of several inches of coarse builders sand and a black lava rock mulch.

    Your suggestions will be appreciated.

  • Joseph M Moran
    Joseph M Moran 08/16/10 at 12:21 pm

    I also have just purchased purchased parryi and havardiana. I am concerned about the heavy snows of my 5b zone garden. Do you think that if I place a ventilated plastic cup over the plants they will be adequately protected from wet snow? I also just planted claret cup cacti "White Sands" and wish to also protect them. They are all in a raised South facing bed, of several inches of coarse builders sand and a black lava rock mulch.

    Your suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

  • Mel Chapman
    Mel Chapman 05/19/11 at 4:36 am

    Our Agave parryi is thriving in Northern California and has just put out its center stem, now about 7' high. Will it die? or will it put out from the roots? Can I cut a spear from the bottom and get it to grow? How about seeds if it blossoms? I really hate to lose this beautiful plant. Mel

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