Tom Karwin, On Gardening | Mangaves

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Care for your garden

Gardeners might be divided into those who strive to add each year’s new introductions to their collections, and those who rely on the familiar, tried–and–true varieties of traditional gardens.

I lean toward Group Two, because the hybridizers’ new promotions often seem like only minor improvements of old favorites, or are poor performers, or have more novelty value than lasting appeal.

Still, a significant new plant can attract attention. Today’s column focuses on Mangaves, which are crosses of Agave and Manfreda, two plants in the large Asparagus family (Asparagaceae).

Mangave ‘Purple People Eater’, a vigorous grower, has attractively speckled purple leaves. This specimen has some leaf damage resulting from the recent separation of pups, but it will soon develop new leaves. (Tom Karwin — Contributed)

Agave and Manfreda plants have separate habitats and usually grow apart from one another, but in the 1990s a natural hybrid was created. Plant hunters from the Yucca-Do Nursery in Texas collected and grew Manfreda seeds in Mexico and saw that two of their seedlings were markedly different. They concluded that they had a intergeneric hybrid of Agave celsii and Manfreda variegata and they introduced the new plant in 2004 as Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’.

This introduction was just 15 years ago, which is an eye-blink in the context of botanical evolution. Hybridizer Hans Hansen of Walters Gardens, in Michigan, began hybridizing new cultivars to combine the qualities of various species of Agaves and Manfredas. These plants, both native to Mexico, had been regarded as separate genera, but taxonomists have recently determined that they are both properly included within the Agave genus.

While individual cultivars, known collectively as “x Manfreda,” can be quite different, they generally share these characteristics, compare with Agaves:

• Grow much faster.• Lack terminal and marginal spines.• Tolerate both drought and over-irrigation.• Tend to be cold-hardy.• Have softer, more brittle leaves.

More important characteristics: Mangaves are polycarpic (produce multiple generations of flowers and seeds) while Agaves are monocarpic (die after flowering).

Mangaves tend to produce many offsets (“pups”); some Agaves produce multiple offsets and others produce none.

Like Agaves, Mangaves can be vulnerable to the dreaded snails and Agave Snout Weevils.

Mangaves are available in a range of sizes, with some cultivars as small as 1 foot by x 2 feet and larger ones up to 3 feet by 6 feet in diameter. The smaller varieties can be grown successfully in large pots, which help to protect them from snails, but the larger ones prefer greater space for root development provided by in-ground cultivation. It depends upon the cultivar and garden conditions, so experiment with both approaches.

While we are still in the early years of Mangave development, we already have an impressive gallery of hybrids. Check the links below. We can anticipate numerous cultivars with fascinating colors, leave structures, fragrances, vigor, and hardiness. Hybridizers are exploring new crosses among 270 species of Agave, Manfreda and Polianthes (all now included within the Agave genus).

This can be a little bewildering, but for gardeners the bottom line is access to a new and rapidly evolving group of succulent plants that have begun appearing in local garden centers. Mangaves are easy to grow and develop their most attractive colors under full sun exposure. Some cultivars could become burned under harsh sunlight, but the moderate Monterey Bay area rarely has such intense conditions.

Advance your gardening knowledge

Here are links to online information about Mangaves. Explore the lists and galleries of the growing range of cultivars on the market. In each case, browse to the named website and search for “Mangave.” Some of these are retail mail-order suppliers; others are wholesalers that might serve your local garden center.

• Plants Delights Nursery• Walters Gardens• Mountain Crest Gardens• San Marcos Growers• Debra Lee Baldwin

The California Cactus & Succulent Society will present “A Oaxacan Adventure” at 10 a.m. Saturday. Greg Starr, horticulturist, nurseryman, author and plant hunter will provide an overview of the cactus and succulents of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. For information and to register for this free webinar, visit

The Ruth Bancroft will present two new webinars:

“Winter-rainfall Aloes, at 10 a.m. Saturday, presented by RBG’s long-time Curator Brian Kemble.“Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates” at 10 a.m. Feb. 27, presented by noted landscape photographer Saxon Holt.

For inforomation and registration for these fee-based events, visit and click on “Events.”

The Garden Conservancy will present a two-part miniseries, “Cultural Bridge: Gardens as Community Connectors,” on March 4 and March 11. These webinars will present “leading experts who are leveraging the power of gardens to transform the world.” For information on these fee-based events, visit and click on “Education.”

Enrich your gardening days

When you are feeling adventuresome as a gardener, check out Mangaves online or at your local garden center and consider adding one or more to your landscape. They could fit in nicely and provide unusual companions for your other plants. Given their variety of leaf color and shapes, Mangaves also welcome creative pairings with plant containers.

Enjoy gardening as exploration!

Tom Karwin is past president of Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and Monterey Bay Iris Society, and a Lifetime UC Master Gardener (Certified 1999–2009). He is now a board member and garden coach for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view daily photos from his garden, To search an archive of previous On Gardening columns, visit

Contributed by local news sources

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