Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Agaves, Living sculptures for landscapes and containers, by Greg Starr

“Why do you like agaves?”… a question posed by “fellow plant geek” Scott Calhoun. Mr. Starr replies, “If asked a dozen times, I will have a dozen different answers. Each species has a distinctive feature that draws me in repeatedly like a moth to a flickering flame, letting go briefly as my interest flashes to a different species before pulling me back in time and time again.”

And so begins this 342 page book on the plant genus nearest and dearest to my gardening heart, Agaves, Living sculptures for landscapes and containers, by Greg Starr. Since I've been asked that very same question at least a dozen times I was very curious what his answer would be. Somehow responding “Because they are so cool, and dangerous! Just look at those spikes!” wasn't really communicating what I wanted to say.
Agave ocahui, photo by Gregg Starr

The book starts off with a thorough introduction to, and information on, growing agaves. Then follows a 270 page “Encyclopedia of Agaves”...each listing includes several photos, field notes, a plant description and information on culture and landscape value. I have to admit I really geeked out on this section. Reading in depth information like this on so many different kinds of agaves, well...that's my definition of a good time.

Next up is a section comparing look-alike agaves along with lots of photos, particularly helpful if you are trying to identify exactly which agave you've got. Finally there is a chart listing plants by size, for those readers lucky enough to be landscaping with agaves. Those of us growing our agaves in containers will never see most of their plants come close to their potential size.
Young Agave stricta (left), Agave striata (right. Photo by Gregg Starr

Mr. Starr mentions a couple of other books in my personal library, Howard Scott Gentry’s Agaves of Continental North America (1982) and Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary Irish and Gary Irish (2000). There was a time when I devoured both of those books and returned to them whenever I wanted more information on a particular plant. Lately however I find myself turning to the internet , without thinking about it I had dismissed those books as being out of date, and besides, the internet is fast! Well since receiving this book from Timber Press last May (yes I received a complimentary review copy) I've headed there first. The in-depth information listed for each species just can’t be easily matched on the internet and let’s face it…depending your source, the internet sometimes lies (I know, don’t tell anyone I said that).
Agave bracteosa, cliff-side. Photo by Gregg Starr

In addition to the species focused information found in the book there are also great nuggets of knowledge that you can only pick up when you’re reading an expert. For example I compared a list of the ten most mesic (characterized by, or adapted to a moderately moist habitat) species with the ten hardiest species and cultivars and learned I should have luck growing Agave gentryi and Agave montana…yay! I have them both, although my ‘gentryi’ is the ‘Jaws’ cultivar.
Agave montanta in flower, it doesn't look real does it? Photo by Gregg Starr

I also picked up two new extremely useful terms… Agavologist and Agaveophile. Finally I will have an answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”… “Well if I ever find the time to go back to school I hope to be an Agavologist…however in the mean time I find that being an Agavephile suits me just fine.”
Agave bovicornuta, it's teeth resemble the horns of a cow. Photo by Gregg Starr

Seriously though I find this book to be an extremely useful addition to my library, but even more than that it manages, on every page, to increase the excitement I feel about these wonderful plants (bet you didn't think that was possible did you?). The photos are marvelous and you can tell Mr. Starr is writing on a subject that he feels passionately about. I love this book!

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