Some attractive succulent plants can be dangerous!
Agaves, in particular, are often armed with spines that challenge both creatures that threaten to eat the plant and gardeners with the best of intentions.
The spines of many agaves generally occur as wickedly sharp points at the ends of leaves. These are called terminal spines, or more technically spinose apical processes. Spines that occur on the edges of leaves are marginal spines or spinose teeth.
By either name, they amount to the plant’s formidable defenses as well as to its aesthetic qualities.
Other spinose structures on plants include thorns and prickles. Here’s a primer for keeping them straight:
- Spines are modified leaves or parts of leaves and are found on most cacti and some succulents.
- Thorns are modified branches or stems and are found on some trees (citrus, hawthorn, honey locust, natal plum, etc.) and shrubs (pyracantha or“firethorn”, bougainvillea, Silverthorn, etc.)
- Prickles are derived from the epidermis, which is the single layer of cells that covers the leaves, flowers, roots, and stems of plants. An informal definition of a prickle is “any pointed, sharp plant part that isn’t where a branch or leaf would be.” The rose provides the most similar example of prickles, which are often incorrectly called thorns of the rose. Other examples are the pink silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) and the less common white silk floss tree (Ceiba insignis).
Gardeners who practice the Chinese art of feng shui probably should avoid spiny plants entirely, especially near the entrance to the home. These plants are thought to stop the flow of chi, the central life force.
Still, many gardeners regard agaves as attractive, despite or because of the spines that many agaves develop. There are a few strategies that allow gardeners to cultivate spinose agaves or cacti without becoming harmed.
Some gardeners will snip the plant’s terminal spines. This approach might be appropriate for plants that are very near walkways or readily accessible to small children, but gardeners so concerned about spiny plants should avoid them in favor of softer varieties.
The most basic defense strategy involves simply being careful and alert to the potential harm.
Some uncommon gripping and cutting tools can be helpful in removing dead leaves or weeding around such plants. One online source is http://cactuspruner.com. Amazon also offers German-made 17.7-inch cactus tweezers that are angled for convenient use.
When planting or transplanting dangerous plants, leather gauntlet gloves and a long-sleeved sturdy shirt provide good protection.
An inexpensive and functional tool for such tasks is a bath towel, which can be used to wrap the plant for safe lifting and transport.
For an interesting brief video on using a winch to transplant a large cactus safely, browse to youtube.com and search for “Repotting a Giant Golden Barrel Cactus.”
With preparation and appropriate tools, gardeners can handle spiny agave plants without acquiring scratches or puncture wounds, and with the enjoyment of their dramatic beauty and a great variety of colors and forms.