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Mesmerizing Mangaves – A Star is Born

Mesmerizing Mangaves – A Star is Born

By Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden
Photographs courtesy of Plant Delights Nursery

How many people are fortunate enough to be part of a plant breeding project that creates an entirely new genus of plant, that subsequently rocks the horticultural world? Such is the case with the revolutionary genus, Mangave.

The memory of seeing my first mangave is etched in my plant-focused brain. My friend Carl Schoenfeld, former owner of the now-shuttered Yucca Do Nursery in Texas, wanted to know what I thought about his photo of a giant manfreda seedling from his latest seed collecting trip to Mexico. I should mention for those who don’t know manfredas, they are a genus of small, fleshy North American native succulents that resemble small rubbery-leafed hostas, often with purple spotted foliage.

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Mangave ‘Redwing’

Arriving at Yucca Do in spring 2003, we studied Carl’s giant seedling until we finally realized that his find was not a manfreda at all, but instead a naturally-pollinated bi-generic hybrid (think humans x gorillas) between manfreda and agave (century plant). On site, we coined the name, Mangave, and Carl assigned the cultivar name x Mangave ‘Macha Mocha’ to his seedling.

I returned home to try my hand making similar crosses, which we did for several years. Realizing the extraordinary potential, we handed off the project and our genetics to plantsman Hans Hansen, who had just started a new job at Michigan’s Walters Gardens, as their Director of New Plant Development. With more resources, both financial and space, I figured Hans could take the project to heights of which I could only dream.

We and others continued to ship Hans agave pollen from across the country, while he continued to make crosses and mix up the genes. After years of mangave breeding, it was finally time to reveal the first of Hans’ hybrids to the horticultural world in 2016, with the introduction of x Mangave ‘Pineapple Express’. The following year, four more selections were released including x Mangave ‘Bad Hair Day’, ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Spotty Dotty’, ‘Silver Fox’, and ‘Purple People Eater’.  

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Mangave ‘Falling Waters’, in flower.

Public excitement over the new genus was much greater than anticipated, so much so, production could not keep up with demand. Mangaves had officially been mainstreamed. Although plant collectors were the first to jump on board the mangave train, many mainstream gardeners still had not heard about this new genus of plants, so a major marketing push, titled “Mad about Mangaves,” was launched by Walters Gardens. From there, it didn’t take long before the proverbial flood gates opened for this new genus of succulents, which are now being gobbled up worldwide as fast as production will allow.

What makes a Mangave special?

There are several significant differences between mangaves and both their parent genera, agaves and manfreda. These are outlined below:

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Mangave ‘Night Owl’

Manfreda

  • Deciduous, or some species which are evergreen in mild winter climates.
  • Many with purple spotted leaves.
  • None with spines.
  • Plant size less than 1’ tall x 2’ in width.
  • Plants flower at two to three years of age.
  • Monocarpic rosettes, but clumps don’t die after flowering.
  • Offset tightly, most without running.

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Mangave ‘Snow Leopard’

Agave (century plant)

  • All evergreen.
  • No leaf pigments other than green and blue.
  • Most have leaf spines.
  • Plant size ranges from 1’ tall x 2’ wide to 7’ tall x 12’ wide, depending on species.
  • Most take 100 years to flower in the wild, but typically 15 years in cultivation in moist climates.
  • Monocarpic rosettes, so non-offsetting plant die after flowering.
  • Often very slow growing.
  • Some clump, while others run.

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Mangave ‘Bloodlines’

Mangave

  • Most are evergreen to 15 degrees F; they are that winter hardy.
  • Leaf color ranges from blue to green to red and purple.
  • ”Spine remnants” resemble hard rubber instead of being sharp.
  • Plant size ranges from 6” tall x 1’ wide to 2’ tall x 5’ wide.
  • Plants flower at a young age, usually two to seven years.
  • Monocarpic rosettes that never die after flowering.
  • Flower stalks range from 6’ to 10’ tall.
  • Some selections are solitary, but others have tightly-held basal offsets.
  • Much faster growing than either parent.
  • Very drought tolerant, but slightly less so than agaves.
  • All clump tightly.

Most early mangave releases have little winter hardiness, since they were bred primarily as tender perennials to be used for bedding and containers. That said, mangaves are rapidly becoming landscape staples in frost-free climates like Southern California, Southern Florida, Mediterranean Europe, Mexico, South America, and Southeast Asia. While most x mangaves are selected for purple spots, which in extreme cases merge making the entire leaf look purple or red, this coloration will need plenty of sunlight to best display these colors well.

As mangave breeding continues, you will see more winter hardy selections. Even with the best efforts, moving the winter hardiness north of U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone 7b will be a challenge due to the limited genetics with which to work. 

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Mangave ‘Navajo Princess’

Currently, the most winter hardy selections (zone 7b and south) are x Mangave ‘Blue Mammoth’ (Agave ovatifolia x Manfreda maculosa), ‘Falling Waters’ (Agave ovatifolia x Manfreda sp.), ‘Bad Hair Day’ (Agave gemniflora x Manfreda maculosa). Although still under hardiness trials, x Mangave ‘Aztec King’ (Manfreda jalisciana x Agave ovatifolia x Agave pseudoferox) and x Mangave ‘Navajo Princess’ (Manfreda maculosa x Agave montana) should also be fine in zone 7b.

Other selections that are still on trial for winter hardiness, and have proven reliable in zone 8b temperatures so far include x Mangave ‘Dreadlocks’, ‘Coffee Jitters’, and ‘Racing Stripes’. There is certainly the potential that these could survive even lower temperatures.

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Mangave ‘Dreadlocks’

Container mangaves can either be brought indoors for the winter, or stored in a garage or crawl space where they are fine kept just above freezing, and run on the dry side in terms of moisture.

As a plant genus, Mangaves are still in their infancy. As of early 2022, there are over 90 named mangave cultivars, with 82 of those the result of Hans Hansen’s work at Walters Gardens. Mangave breeding continues to expand with new breeders from Rhode Island to California, and to Southeast Asia. New boundaries include many more variegated foliage plants, more winter hardy selections, and frankly, things we just can’t imagine yet. We are excited as this new plant category continues to rock the plant world.

For more information, visit Plant Delights Nursery.


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