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Furcraea longaeva

A visit to Tresco Abbey Garden in the Isles of Scilly is the usual introduction to this plant.

Undoubtedly they grow in many other parts of the world (they come from Mexico) but the number growing in this extraordinary garden on a rock somewhere off Cornwall is remarkable. And because of their size – extremely noticeable. They form a big fat trunk (to 6ft after many years) and leaves which are 4 or 5ft long. Sometimes the trunk becomes so tall, they keel over under their own weight and appear to snake along the ground. A recumbent posture as Stanley Holloway would have said. By then they look slightly ridiculous and many years ago they had to take drastic action to rectify this situation on the ones either side of the Neptune Steps (a central and conspicuous feature in the Abbey Garden) : they decided to cut the heads off, remove the ridiculous snaking trunks and re-plant the heads in the ground where they’d been originally planted. They knew this was a risky proposition and their hopes of a successful outcome were not high. To everyone’s astonishment – it worked! Every single plant (10?) took root and quietly carried on being exotic as if nothing had happened. I think that must have been in the 1950s. They’re still there.

There seems to be some confusion over the nature and size of the trunk. Pictures of the plant growing in the wild will show a petticoat of old leaves hanging down and obscuring the trunk. In cultivation, gardeners tend to remove these old leaves, displaying the trunk – sometimes 1ft in diameter. The relationship between the height of the trunk at the time the plant flowers is non-existent; it could flower at any time.

Frank Naylor was a gardener on Tresco for many years and in retirement he used to give talks in the Village Hall about his life and times. He gave the distinct impression that this high risk – and ultimately successful – plan was entirely his idea. It was certainly his favourite and best known anecdote.

As with all these spiky jobs, they will eventually flower – huge tree like structures – like an Agave – but sometimes bigger. They’ll grow to 30ft tall in 3 months (the flower spike, that is) bearing branches covered in yellow flowers that then fade to brown but the show’s not over. The seeming dead flower buds turn into bulbils (actually tiny plants) and so the entire thing goes from green to yellow to brown and back to green. The death of the plant is assured (complete exhaustion from the effort of producing the huge thing) but the successful continuation of its progeny is also assured. The bulbils drop to the ground and quickly root. A forest of Furcraeas. As a wonderful exercise in belt and braces, it also produces pods packed with seed. If conditions where too dry for the bulbils to root then the thousands of seeds will only have to wait for rain and they’ll germinate rapidly.

For reasons not understood, one gets ‘Furcaea Flower Years’. Masses will all decide to flower at the same time and the Tresco garden is transformed into looking even more exotic than normal. No doubt they do the same in the wild.

Although it’s an incredibly easy plant to grow and we find them irresistible, they’re not very frost hardy. Tresco rarely gets frost which is one of the reasons they thrive there in so much profusion but much experimentation was done by the gardeners at Abbotsbury Garden on the Dorset coast (mild but not nearly as mild as Tresco) and they discovered that they could grow them outside – as long as they were planted out as big as possible. We’ve always found the same applies to Agaves.

In a pot, they can be put in a shed for the winter which is simple enough but these plants have a curious characteristic (which they seem to share with their close relative Beschoneria yuccoides) – they tend to grow to the size of the pot. In some ways a convenient characteristic but also a curious one. Stick it in a bigger pot and it’ll expand quite quickly and then appear to stop. Repeat the performance in a bigger pot and it’ll do the same. Presumably the thing is to keep potting it on until you can’t move it and that’s the time to plant it out permanently. Certainly worth trying in London and built up coastal towns.

Furcraea used to be called Fourcroya – named I think, after French scientist Antoine Fourcroy. Why the name was changed from Fourcroya to Furcraea is a mystery. Hard to say the name without sounding like you come from the West Midlands.

Propagated by us from bulbils.

Hardiness traffic light green

Hardiness level Red

Find out more

Hardy in Atlantic Seaboard gardens, The Channel Islands, gardens in Central London (and other large cities) and conservatories.

This is only meant as a guide; there are some plants with red labels that would only survive in extremely favoured spots such as The Isles of Scilly or coastal south-west Ireland.

We're always on hand to give advice about plants and their frost hardiness.

Please remember that these coloured labels are only a rough guide.

General Point about Plant Hardiness: The commonly held belief that it's better to 'plant small' is perfectly true with herbaceous plants, but not necessarily true with woody plants. They need some 'wood' on them to survive severe cold - so plants of marginal hardiness in very cold areas should really be planted LARGER, rather than smaller, wherever possible.