In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
January, 2007
Regional Report

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The bulbils covering this agave flower stalk are miniature plants ready for transplanting.

Plant a Clone

I get a crick in my neck staring up at towering agave flower stalks covered in "bulbils," which are tiny clones of the mother plant. There's just something fascinating about this survival method in stark silhouette against blue desert sky. Although most agave species die after they send up a flower stalk, called an inflorescence, all is not lost. Some species will produce hundreds of bulbils.

Growing from a bud at the base of each flower, these mini-agaves become larger the longer they are left on the stalk. In nature, they would eventually fall to the ground and root, a process that might take a year or more. Alternatively, the entire stalk may break and tip over. Of course, not all of the bulbils will survive and root, so the mother plant produces plenty of clones to increase the odds.

Pot Them Up
Gardeners don't have to wait for nature to take its course. Gently pluck off a bulbil, and voila -- you've got a replica, albeit a small one, of the original agave. Propagating bulbils is an excellent way to increase your plant collection and swap with other plant lovers. It's also a fun activity for kids, who enthusiastically pluck the baby plants. Bulbils grow pretty rapidly at this stage, which is also good for keeping youngsters interested.

You can remove bulbils from the stalk at any time, but for best propagation success, wait until they pull easily without resistance, so tissue isn't damaged. The bottom of the bulbil must be intact for roots to grow. If you plan to propagate in quantity, it's easiest to stick bulbils in a flat filled with extremely well-draining cactus mix, or sand and pumice. Tiny pots suffice for a few. If you have a well-drained area in the landscape with loose soil, you might want to try "potting" some directly in the ground. After all, they're used to falling to the earth and figuring it out on their own!

Water the bulbils periodically and keep them out of direct sun. No fertilizer is needed. They'll root within a month or so.


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