Agave Ovatifolia Care: Growing Whale’s Tongue Agave

Ed Wike
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Quick Care

Though Agave ovatifolia, commonly known as a “whale’s tongue” or “tongue of fire” has fewer than 15 currently known species, this grouping is well known for its attractive long green leaves that end in a sharp, slightly hooked end. Their leaf size can be as small as a hand or as much as half a meter or greater.

Whale’s tongue agave is actually a beautiful plant with interesting cultural traits and is not difficult at all to care for if you hit the basics and provide the right environment.

This is a low maintenance plant that is not hard to grow. It also does not require much of a stable home, as it can basically thrive anywhere it is placed.

In contrast with many other agave plants, it also does not grow very tall. It stays closer to the ground, and as a result is often referred to as a “ground cover”.

When looking at a Agave ovatifolia plant, it is not at all uncommon to notice thick brown hairs sprouting from the edges of their leaves.

Similar Species

The plant suffers from a single fatal disease that will eventually kill it. This rare disease is caused by a bacterium known as Pseudomonas syringae and can be transmitted either by wind or people.

To keep the disease from spreading, it's best to quarantine any newly acquired specimen for several months before introducing them into the existing population.

The bacteria is only harmful to agave ovatifolia, so it's not a problem when working with these plants. However, because the symptoms displayed by the Agave ovatifolia aren't as distinctive as the symptoms shown by the death-watch beetle, it can be hard to notice the disease.

Another disease you will want to prevent is Stigmina carpophila. This is a mold that likes warm, wet environments and is best controlled by moving the plant out of any areas where standing water has been allowed to collect or providing adequate ventilation through these areas.

Agave ovatifolia care requires a shallow and well-drained potting mix that provides generous humidity without waterlogging. When it comes time to repot, take the plant's size and growth capabilities into consideration. It can get quite large, so a five gallon container or above is necessary when the plant reaches maturity.

Agave Ovatifolia Care

The Story Behind the Name

Folklore comes with every plant, but there is a story behind the naming of the cultivar we call Agave ovatifolia – a story that is an indication of what Agave ovatifolia has been used for over the years.

This cultivar is commonly referred to as “Whale’s Tongue Agave” because of the shape of its leaves. This has led to the assumption that the plant was used by whale hunters in their quest to protect their ships from catastrophic fires.

But the name isn’t just a nod to the folk tales of ancient seafarers.

It actually refers to the leaves of the green-leaved variety of agave, in which the leaf edges are shaped like a spout or whaler’s spout.

To many botanists, the name is misleading. After all, whales have no tongues. Rather, the leaves resemble the mouth of a whale and, to add to that, there are old records about the agave being used to protect ships and villages from catching fire … fire being attributed to the breath of whales.

Light and Temperature

You can plant your Agave ovatifolia just about anywhere in the world, as long as you plant it with the right amount of light. Full sun means getting eight hours or more of direct sunlight each day. If you do not have enough sun, then you should consider partial sun, which is a little more forgiving. Partial sun means getting four to eight hours of sunlight each day. Place your agave in an area with good drainage. Try to make sure the soil is loamy and should be fertilized at least three to four times a year, depending on the type of plant food you use. If you use a commercially-available fertilizer, then you should do this once a year. If you use natural fertilizers, such as fish emulsion or good compost, then you should do this twice a year. The soil should be moist, but not wet or dry for your agave.

The temperature should be between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you are in a warm environment, it may be okay to plant it outside. Otherwise, allow the plant to be inside. The plant should be placed in a location where it can get at least 20 hours of cool temperatures. You can place it in a garage, a basement, or a cool, north-facing room, if you do not have enough plants outside.

Water and Humidity

Unlike a lot of succulents, this type of agave needs a high amount of humidity. In fact, growers actually recommend having the plants placed in a terrarium or a glass container with a tightly closing lid.

With these containers, it will be easier to maintain the required 60 to 65 percent humidity. You need to spray the plant frequently if you are growing it outside of a container. Like the other types of agaves, it will also need a good deal of water.

Soil

Warm and dry are the two key elements needed to achieve success with the Agave ovatifolia. There are other care factors, which we will discuss later. Shady and very dry are two of the other most important conditions, which should be present for your plant. This species is typically a bit more difficult to grow from seed. You will need a bit more patience to germinate seeds, but once you do, you will enjoy the ease of growing this particular species. Soil: The soil for your whale’s tongue agave should be very well-draining (in fact, this species may be considered xeric, also known as drought tolerant, in nature, although the climate must be warm or the plant will not thrive).

Fertilizer

Agave ovatifolia can quickly turn into a foliage monster if you don’t provide it with fertilizer. This succulent has big, strong leaves and lots of them that will quickly fill out any planter it is in. In order to get those big compact leaves it must be fertilized with a liquid, fertilizer. Agave, in general, doesn’t have high demands and won’t require fertilizer if it is given other nitrogen sources. Be careful when fertilizing. If you fertilize your agave ovatifolia too much or the wrong way you can burn the plant very severely. Do not fertilize your Agave ovatifolia if there is yellowing taking place on the leaves. If the leaves are green and compact you are good to go. If there are brown tips on the leaves, you may not have watered enough or too much. If there is brown discoloration the root ball is poorly placed or it is too close to a heat source. When fertilizing make sure the fertilizer you are using is not for acid loving plants or it may damage your plant.

In nature, hydrochory is the transport of water and nutrients by way of water. It is the biggest way that water and nutrients circle the globe. It has a big effect on us and here in the desert it is the main way we use water.

Transplanting

Over the course of several weeks, the agave will establish itself, and after the first year or so, it should be able to grow outdoors with little care. If you are growing the agave as a potted plant, it will need to be transplanted in to another pot approximately every couple of years to keep the size of its root ball manageable. While the agave won’t mind being transplanted and it’s not something you have to do regularly, it’s a good practice to help preserve the life of the plant.

Propagation

Limit one agave per gallon of soil, unless you have very large containers.

When planted outside on an embankment or mountain, the agave can grow as much as 2 feet per year up to a maximum height of 35 feet.

Agave ovatifolia are relatively easy to propagate, and provide excellent gifts. The plant’s flower stalk will bloom in late spring or early summer. The flower will last only two to three days, but several more will follow after the original one falls off.

Once their flowering cycle ends, the plant will die and it is best to remove the dead stalk completely to prevent the spread of disease.

This dying stalk will resemble a pineapple covered in thick needles and contain many ripe seeds.

Simply rub the dead stalk with your fingers to remove the needles and seeds. You can also use a small brush to remove the needles. This will expose the seeds with their bright yellow aril.

Spread the seeds out on a wet paper towel to dry thoroughly.

Pruning

The Agave Ovatifolia has bulbous, sword-shaped, blue-gray leaves that can grow to more than 3 feet in length and are a spectacular addition to any landscape. Given the proper care and conditions, the agave will double in size in 2 to 3 years. This herbaceous perennial belongs to the Liliaceae (or lily) Family and originates in the southern region of Mexico.

The agave may be cut back to 1/3 of its size in spring if it begins to look sparse and spikey. However, since this process takes a while for the plant to bounce back and it can survive with little water and food, it should not be cut back during the summer months if there is a drought.

Troubleshooting

The Agave ovatifolia is a succulent that gets its name from its unique leaf shape that forms into a “tongue.” The tongue shape can taper with a point to it or it can be broader at the end. The Agave ovatifolia is a very unique plant with a wide variety of flower colors and leaf variations. Some have tipped points and others have rounded tips. The leaves can be in a spotted pattern, they can be smooth, and when you get the distinctive “tongue” leaf, you will most often experience a leaf that is spotted on the top half and smooth on the bottom half. Seems like an interesting plant, right?

You should have your Agave ovatifolia for several years. Suggested care and propagation of this plant is fairly simple. Agave ovatifolia care should be relatively easy with a little bit of effort. However, if you want to prepare your Agave ovatifolia for success, you will need to take care of it properly the first few months. This will ensure that the plant will perform well overall and you will have a beautiful specimen to show for yourself in the years to come.

FAQs

What is the best way to water an Agave plant?

The best way to water an Agave plant is to let the soil dry out almost completely between waterings.

It's generally accepted that Agave plants like to be somewhat on the dry side.

If your Agave is placed in direct sunlit conditions, it's even more important to allow the soil to dry out somewhat before watering again. Agaves don't like to be "wet feet".

If the soil in your Agave's pot is damp, first let the excess moisture evaporate by placing it in a hot, dry area that gets lots of sunlight.

If the soil is very wet, carefully remove the plants. Heavily water the soil and then leave it in a warm, dry spot for several hours (or overnight) to evaporate. Be careful not to over water. Be sure to put the Agave back in the original potting soil.