Can i heal this dying cactus?
June 1, 2014 9:25 PM   Subscribe

The house I live in was flipped and landscaped with these cactuses before we moved in. The largest one seems to be dying. It looks rotten in the center and even has some mold. I suspect the recent heavy rains and lack of good drainage. The question I have is two fold: Is it possible to fix this guy, or is he a goner? If I do replace the plant, what kind of plant is it, and how should i prevent this from happening again? Here are some pictures of the plant.
posted by jonclegg to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
Agave Americana, which I was introduced to as "Century Plant".
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:28 PM on June 1, 2014

Concur with sebastien, it's a Century plant and it looks like a goner, probably done in by excess water. Caution when you take it out - the sap is strongly irritating to skin. There are lots of other agave plants that might do as replacements. Check with local sources for options.
posted by X4ster at 10:29 PM on June 1, 2014

Just had a second look at your images and noted what looks like a rain gutter downspout. If that's correct plants other than agave may be better choices but some agave varieties do tolerate more water than others. Look around your neighborhood to see what other plants are thriving in other similar locations.
posted by X4ster at 10:37 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you take this plant out, scrape aside those pebbles and see what kind of soil you have under there. If you have what is virtually a clay bowl, nothing is going to thrive. This looks like a hot bed and that's good for agave but drainage is absolutely essential.
posted by Anitanola at 10:38 PM on June 1, 2014

I had a cactus die in a pot once and it fell over and collapsed and a million billion tiny spiders came skittering out in a vast stream and I am still not over it 20 years later. So maybe take your agave out sooner instead of later. Wear rose gardening gloves if you can.
posted by gingerest at 10:46 PM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, dig down and tell us what is going on below. Also, try digging a hole, filling it with water, and watching how fast or slow it drains out.

I'm no expert on landscaping, but if you do have some hardpan clay fairly close to the surface, you can learn a lot by googling "drought tolerant clay tolerant Texas plants" for example. (Panicum virgatum with some black-eyed susans?)
posted by slidell at 1:35 AM on June 2, 2014

I have one of these (in central Indiana, where we get a ton of rain and have very clay-packed soils, not to mention frigid winters) It was already in my yard when we moved in over 25 years ago. Its condition has ebbed and flowed a lot over the years. At one point, I thought for sure it had died. Then, it started to flourish once more. Right now, it's looking extremely well. So, I guess I'm saying "Don't give up yet."
posted by Thorzdad at 5:51 AM on June 2, 2014

Best answer: You can tell how these plants are doing by giving the leaves a bit of a tug. If it is a deadly rot problem then it will be all the way down into the roots since that is where it starts and the plant will be loose in the soil. A healthy plant will feel like it is set in concrete.

If you want to grow these redo the plant bed so that it is not flat and remove the border trim. The best way to plant succulent plants is on a raised sloping bed that allows excess water to run away downhill. Use a soil mixture that is at least half grit and sharp sand underneath the top dressing. You also definitely want to redirect your eavesdrop so it is not dumping water in your agave's bed. If it was my garden I would grow more but smaller agave species in that bed because Americana gets huge and will intrude on your parking space with large nasty spikes (In the British National Agave collection they put corks on the spikes to prevent injuries). The advantage of more but smaller plants is that you can handle and replace them far more easily. I also think some smaller agaves are incredibly beautiful like 'victoria reginae' and 'kissokan'. You can even create a plug and play garden by burying clay pots that match the pot size of a compact agave and then just stack the pots. That way if you get an unexpected snow fall or monsoon you can just pull the pots and move them under your garage or inside until the weather improves (at least until the roots escape or break the pot).

If you decide to wait and see and you later want to remove the dead leaves cut down the middle of the dead leaf and pull the halves apart. Otherwise agave leaves are just too fibrous and tough to remove.

With some succulents damage to the growth point can result in multiple new plants forming (as a deliberate propagation technique it is called 'coring'). I am not sure if this happens with agave though (they are too big to be a major part of my collection so all I have are very compact slow growing ones).

Xeric World is a message board with agave experts who can give you better advice.
posted by srboisvert at 6:36 AM on June 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would pull off the damaged leaves and give the plant a few weeks to recover. I've had a similar thing in the past, with a different species of cactus. Letting it dry out a little and removing the damaged leaves seemed to give it a chance. It took a while, but it came back and now looks as good as new. It doesn't always work, but it's worth a try.
posted by Solomon at 6:38 AM on June 2, 2014

Another possibility is it is post-flower. Agaves are monocarpic: they send up one giant flower and then die, leaving a bunch of little offsets (baby agaves) around the base. Your plant looks on the small side to have bloomed but check the center for signs of a sawed off flower stalk. If there's is (or was) a stalk, there's no saving the main plant.
posted by jamaro at 8:15 AM on June 2, 2014

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