The Sonoran Desert Florilegium

plants of the florilegium

Agave palmeri
Palmer's agave

FAMILY:  Asparagaceae — Asparagus family

ETYMOLOGY:  The name of the genus Agave, first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, is taken from the Greek word agauos, which means 'noble' or 'admirable', a reference to the stately appearance of the plant. The name Agave occurs frequently in Greek mythology--as one of the Amazons (female warriors), one of the Nereids (sea nymphs), and one of the Danaids (the fifty daughters of Danaus).

The species epithet palmeri honors Edward Palmer (1829-1911), a self-taught botanist who emigrated to the United States from Britain at the age of 21 and traveled extensively throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico collecting plants, amassing an vast collection of over 100,000 plants, including 1,000 new species. During his travels, he made extensive studies of plant uses among the indigenous peoples he encountered and is considered the father of ethnobotany.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE:  Southeastern Arizona into southwestern New Mexico and from Sonora to northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico

HABITAT:  Found on rocky slopes, desert grasslands, and oak woodlands, 3,000-6,000'

BLOOMING SEASON:  June and July and sometimes in September

DESCRIPTION:  Agave palmeri grows in a rosette (a spiral of layered leaves) that grows to 2' tall and 3-4' wide. Pale green to glaucous green leaves, sometimes tinged with red, are 3' long and 6" across. Leaves are thick, rigid, and trough-shaped with small, closely-spaced teeth along the leaf margins. At the tip of each leaf is a sharp brown spine, 1-2" long.

Flowers are a pale greenish yellow with pink to dark red tips. The flower stalk is branched and grows to 10-16' tall with 8-12 branches.

NOTES:  As with most plants in this genus, Agave palmeri is monocarpic—it flowers once in its lifetime and then dies.

Plant-Insect Associations:  Palmer's agave is a keystone species, a plant that many other species are dependent on in a particular ecosystem. It is primarily pollinated by bats and produces a significant amount of nectar at night. Plants bloom first at the southernmost parts of its range, and migrating bats from Mexico follow the northward-moving blooming of the agaves along their migration route.

Desert Adaptations:  Several adaptations by the agave's leaves help it to survive in areas with little rainfall. The leaves themselves are succulent and store water, and a waxy cuticle covering the leaves helps to prevent water loss. The spiral form of the leaves and the concave shape of individual leaves help to funnel water to the plant's roots. Agaves have a fine net of shallow, fibrous roots that spread out in all directions and can quickly take advantage of even small amounts of rain.