Driving round smallholding areas, one notices that Agave Americana is quite a popular succulent. It is not a cactus.
What is the difference between a succulent and a cactus? A cactus is part of the succulent family, but not all succulents are cacti.
A succulent is a plant that can store water in its stem, leaves or roots. This means that the plant can survive in arid conditions.
A cactus is a succulent plant with a thick fleshy stem which typically bears spines, lacks leaves, and has brilliantly coloured flowers. Cacti are native to arid regions of Central and North America and are cultivated elsewhere, especially as pot plants. South African has no indigenous cacti.
According to PlantZAfrica, “Agave americana is a suckering, evergreen monocarpic, multi-annual, with very large, succulent leaves arranged in a rosette, often reaching a height of 2 m.” (Photo above courtesy PlantZAfrica)
Monocarpic means that the plant flowers once and then dies. These succulents are sometimes called “Century plants” because they live for many decades before they flower, although not literally 100 years.
Owing to its suckering habit, these plants form large colonies that limit the growth of other species. This habit can, however, be put to good use in forming a living hedge, which will be impenetrable by humans or livestock. Some smallholders use them to keep animals away from crops, as well as for security purposes.
Other uses include using the leaves as fodder and agave are also helpful in producing alcoholic beverages, medicines, sugar substitutes, a variety of foods, rope, paper, cloth and binding agents. For centuries Mexican farmers have used agave to construct terraces and to prevent soil erosion.
Agave Americana was introduced to South Africa as an ornamental plant and it has become naturalised here. At the moment it is listed as a category 3 invasive species in the Western Cape, but nowhere else in the country.