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Plant Highlight: Agave pintilla

July 2023

By Brian Kemble


Agave victoriae-reginae, first named in 1875, has long been a popular plant in cultivation due to its compact rosettes of leaves with striking white markings on the leaf surfaces. It has two close relatives that share this trait: Agave nickelsiae (named in 1895) and Agave pintilla (named in 2011). The newest-described, Agave pintilla, is also the most southerly-occurring, coming from southern Durango state in west-central Mexico.


About the Plant

Because of the similarities between the three relatives, it is worth pointing out what distinguishes them. A. victoriae-reginae has the highest leaf count on a mature plant, typically ranging from 280 to 500 leaves, though occasional smaller specimens may have less than this. Its basic color is deep green, and its leaves are typically slightly incurved, so that they are tightly bunched together. A. nickelsiae has somewhat fewer leaves (170 to 280) of a grayer color, with the leaves straighter, more spreading, and a little wider, and with more prominent black tips. A. pintilla is the smallest of the three, with deep green leaves like A. victoriae-reginae, but with the more open habit of A. nickelsiae; its leaf count ranges from 60 to 180. These species belong to the subgenus Littaea within Agave, and thus their flowers are produced along the stalk of the inflorescence, rather than being in clusters at the ends of floral branches, as seen in the subgenus Agave. The stalk of A. nickelsiae is the thickest and tallest of the three relatives, rising to a height of as much as 21 feet (6.5 m), while the stalks of the other two are usually less than 14 feet (4.3 m), with A. pintilla being the most slender. All three species have white or whitish flowers, but these are smaller (with shorter stamens) for A. victoriae-reginae than for the other two.

Agave pintilla may be single-headed, but it often puts out stolons at the base to form a multi-headed clump. A mature rosette attains a diameter of 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 cm), with between 60 and 180 leaves. The deep green leaf surfaces have prominent white markings, and occasional plants may have some short white longitudinal ridges or a smattering of white prickles, though these are not usually present. The leaf length is from 5.1 to 8.7 inches (13 to 22 cm), and the leaf width is from 2.3 to 3.15 inches (5.8 to 8 cm). The leaves are edged with white, and they have sharp black tips, which are sometimes multi-pronged. The black of the leaf tips does not extend a little way down the leaf margins, as is frequently seen in A. nickelsiae.


About the Inflorescence

The flowers of A. pintilla are pale green at the base, outside of the ovary, and above this the six white or greenish-white tepals* form a nectar-filled cup, with the stamens and style extending well beyond this. The flowers are about 1.6 inches long (4 cm), not counting the stamens and styles, whose length changes as the flower matures.


About the Fruit

The oval three-chambered seed pods of A. pintilla are about .9 inch long (2.3 cm), rounded on the bottom at the point of attachment, and with a pointed tip. When ripe, they split open to release the small black seeds; these are wedge-like or hemispherical and .16 to .2 inch long (4 to 5 mm).


Care and Maintenance

Agave pintilla is not difficult to grow, though it requires good drainage and the soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings. It can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and can endure overnight lows to at least 20° F (-7° C).

*The term “tepals” is used in place of “petals” for plants that do not have distinctly different sepals and petals.


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Photo by Martin Kristen & Julia Etter

Note: All the photos below were taken in habitat, north of Mezquital, by Brian Kemble.