Tequila Farmers

Agave tequilana pine cone (pina) harvest, photo courtesy Getty Images

“Is the life of an Agave lengthened if its flower stalk is cut off early?  I noticed that the blue tequila agave farmers in Mexico keep them trimmed off.”

Tom Gearhart, Valley Village
That’s an excellent question since, in the case of most plants, removing flower buds or rudimentary flower stalks will stimulate vegetative growth (of stems, leaves, and roots), leading to a more robust plant.  Agaves, however, are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and then they die, even if the flower stalk is removed after it has barely started to grow.
The agave species (Agave tequilana) to which you refer and from which tequila is made is a perfectly symmetrical silvery blue sidereal beauty that lives for 10-12 years before it flowers and dies.  It makes a wonderful accent plant and also has practical value in preventing erosion on slopes.  Do not be deterred from planting it due to its short lifespan since it produces many stout pups or offsets which, after planting, soon become good sized specimens themselves.
Many agaves also produce miniature clones of themselves on their flower stalks, sometimes a hundred or more.  These clones are known as bulbils and often begin to grow roots while still attached to the flower stalk.  Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) is famous for its bulbil production.
Flower stalks on agave grow up to 25 feet tall, towering above every plant in their immediate environment.  The reason for this is to make it easy for bats to access and feed on the nectar in agave flowers.  In the process of foraging for nectar, these bats — in the manner of nectar seeking bees on fruit tree blossoms — pollinate the agave flowers.
The reason tequila farmers cut flower stalks is to channel energy that would be used for making flowers and seeds into fattening up the pina or heart of the plant, whose carbohydrate is transformed into tequila.  Where flower stalks are allowed to grow and set seed, pinas do not enlarge nearly as much as when flowers stalks are nipped in the bud.  A full six to twelve months elapse between detaching the incipient flower and harvesting the pina.  (Note: pina means pineapple and refers to the appearance of the harvested agave heart.)
“I am an avid gardener, although I only have a backyard cement porch that is about 10′ by 20′.  No one has understood why I care so much about my potted plants.  I visit Lowe’s in Norwalk several times a month. They have a great discount rack with nearly dead plants on clearance, from $1 to $5.  I love taking them home and bringing them back to life.
I have tried to explain multiple times to friends and family why I enjoy doing what I do, that there is nothing like finding a new flower in bloom.
Your column on July 17, 2018, finally gave me the perfect words to explain myself to everyone:  ‘for me, a plant blooming in all its glory is tangible proof of God’s presence.’  Finally, someone put into words how I feel!”
Jennifer McDowell, Norwalk
“I had a liquidambar tree removed because it was planted too close to my house and the roots were doing damage.  The tree removal company did a wonderful job and the stump was ground down to eighteen inches below the soil surface.  However, my problem now is that I have suckers popping up all over the place. Please help.”
Sheldon Mansdorf, West Hills
The suckers you see are adventitious shoots sprouting from still viable roots.  Not many trees do this but I have seen the same phenomenon on Fremont and Lombardy poplars as well as Brazilian pepper trees (Schinus terebinthifolius) and ornamental plums and cherries, where suckers sprout up far away from the trunk.
To eliminate this growth, you can spray an herbicide such as Roundup or products that contain NAA (a naturally occurring plant growth hormone) such as Monterey Sucker-Stopper or Bonide Sucker Punch.  These NAA products may also be applied to suckers growing around the base of the trunk, such as occurs on olive and Bradford pear trees, or on the trunk itself.
To prevent over spray, cut out the bottom of a coffee can and place it over the sucker so that the spray is confined to the can, or just paint the product onto the leaves.  Alternatively, you can scrape or strip suckers down to green tissue and then spray with a homemade mix of equal parts rubbing alcohol and water.
Tip of the Week:  You can find tequila agave locally at Worldwide Exotics in Lake View Terrace (worldwideexoticsnursery.com).  Dozens of rare species, succulent and otherwise, that you will see no where else are available there at reasonable prices.  The nursery, at 11157 Orcas Avenue, is open to the public from 9:30-4:00 on Saturdays.

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