Plant Evaluation Notes


View All Studies

An Evaluation Study of Select Mangave Cultivars

An Evaluation Study of Select Mangave Cultivars  |  Issue 49 2024

Jack E. Nicholson1 and Gavin Young2


Download Study



Mangaves in Chicago Botanic Garden trial planters

Mangaves in Chicago Botanic Garden trial planters

Agave americana
(Photographed at Balboa Park, San Diego, California by Jack Nicholson)

Agave americana (Photographed at Balboa Park, San Diego, California by Jack Nicholson)


Agave victoriae-reginae

Agave victoriae-reginae (Photographed at Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee, Wisconsin by Jack Nicholson)


Spotted form of Manfreda virginica [Agave virginica] (Photographed by Sid Vogelpohl)

Spotted form of Manfreda virginica [Agave virginica] (Photographed by Sid Vogelpohl)


Inflorescence of ‘Painted Desert’

Inflorescence of ‘Painted Desert’


If ×Mangave sounds unfamiliar, it is probably because these plants are relatively new on the horticultural scene. This name is a portmanteau for the intergeneric cross between Manfreda and Agave, two closely related succulent plant groups in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). Genetic analysis shows that species formerly classified as Manfreda—and by extension ×Mangave—properly belong nestled within the Agave genus. We acknowledge the nothogenus name ×Mangave here because the original nomenclature is commonly used in the nursery industry. However, throughout the remainder of this report, ×Mangave is reduced to the status of a common name—mangave. Regardless of taxonomy, the mangave phenomenon warrants its own recognition. First coined in the early 2000s, the selection of mangaves on the market exploded in the past decade thanks largely to the work of Hans Hansen at Walters Gardens, Zeeland, Michigan. Combining the unique characteristics in Manfreda and Agave, Hansen and others have produced a menagerie of hybrids featuring novel combinations of colors, patterns, and forms. Spotted, striped, or solid; spiny or smooth; stiff or soft; and everything in between, these collectible curiosities are sure to appeal to any gardener looking for a showpiece plant.

Agave is a widely cultivated genus of more than 200 species native to predominantly hot, dry regions of the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Agaves are famously monocarpic, meaning they only flower and set seed once before dying, although the mother plant is often succeeded by offsets called pups. The common name “century plant” refers to the fact that it takes several years—often decades—for an agave to bloom. Their rigid, evergreen, succulent leaves are armed with a vicious terminal spine and often feature teeth on the margins as well. Agaves come in a variety of colors, sizes, and forms, ranging from the imposing American century plant (Agave americana) to the compact and elegant Queen Victoria agave (A. victoriae-reginae). These plants are prized in gardens around the world for their sculptural forms and drought tolerance.

Manfreda, a lesser-known group native to the southeastern United States, Texas, and northern Mexico, are variously known as false aloes, tuberoses, or spice lilies. Despite their reclassification within Agave, species formerly assigned to Manfreda have numerous characteristics that set them apart from the rest of the genus. With a preference for higher moisture levels and soft, deciduous foliage with only innocuous serrations, Manfreda species behave more like typical herbaceous perennials than their spiky, desert-dwelling cousins. Furthermore, their bloom cycle is more like a hosta than a typical agave: individual rosettes bloom each year, but new ones are continually generated from an underground corm. Notably, some possess red or purple spots on their leaves—a trait highlighted in many mangave cultivars.

Mangaves are low-maintenance and versatile additions to the garden. Most are hardy to about 25 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA Hardiness Zone 9b) but some cultivars have been found to withstand temperatures below 10°F (Zone 7b). Gardeners in cooler climates can still enjoy mangaves in containers and overwinter them indoors near a sunny window. Although mangaves are drought tolerant, they thrive and put on the most growth with a moderate amount of water; their growth rate is also much faster than most agaves. Ample UV light exposure is needed to bring out the red and purple pigmentation of many varieties to full effect; a plant grown in full sun will display much richer colors than one grown in shade. Their thick, often spiny foliage is avoided by deer and rabbits, but snails and slugs may pose an issue. In areas where agaves are commonly grown, mangaves can be affected by the agave snout weevil, an insect whose larvae burrow and feed on the core of the plant, which is fatal unless caught very early. This pest can be prevented or treated with systemic insecticides containing imidacloprid. Mangaves are monocarpic like their agave parents but bloom much faster—some in as little as one or two years. Tubular green, yellow, or pinkish flowers are borne on an inflorescence towering several feet above the rest of the plant. The main rosette will die after flowering, but most varieties produce basal pups or bulbils which can be easily moved around the garden or shared with others.

The architectural forms, varied textures, and striking colors and patterns of mangaves make them ideal focal points in landscapes and containers. Grouping a collection of different mangaves together, as seen in our trial, highlights the unique attributes of each variety. With their adaptability to a range of watering schedules, mangaves are suited for combinations with other succulents as well as many annuals and perennials, provided the soil is well-drained.

List of Sections
Hans Hansen on Breeding Mangaves
Trial Details

View All Studies

Hans Hansen

Hans Hansen on Breeding Mangaves

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s been more than 20 years since the first time I heard the word mangave.”

While managing a tissue culture lab at Shady Oaks Nursery in Waseca, Minnesota, in 2003, I received a call from Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tony had leads on a monster plant—an intergeneric cross between a Manfreda and an Agave. He asked if I would be willing to put it into tissue culture and produce it for him. Tony had a colleague— Carl Schoenfeld at Yucca Do Nursery in Texas—who had botanized in Mexico in the late 1990s and collected seeds of Manfreda variegata [Agave variegata]. After germinating the seeds, two of the seedlings in the flat did not resemble the rest. Tony traveled to the nursery in Texas to see the plants firsthand, and it was then that Tony and Carl realized this must be a serendipitous cross between the Manfreda and an Agave. Carl remembered Agave celsii [A. mitis] also grew at the site where the original seeds of the Manfreda were collected. That jaw-dropping moment was the first known intergeneric hybrid between these two genera.

In 2004, the first plants of the more distinctive clone from this original cross were offered to the horticultural world jointly by Yucca Do Nursery and Plant Delights Nursery under the name ×Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’. The plant is intermediate between the two parents, with mahogany red leaves. During the tissue culture process, I developed and stabilized both marginal- and medio-variegated sports of ‘Macho Mocha’. The creamy white sport was named ‘Espresso’ and released by Plant Delights Nursery in 2009; I named the white-centered form ‘Cappuccino’, and it was first offered by Plant Delights Nursery in 2015.

After having the privilege of propagating this cool plant, I began making my own bigeneric hybrids. I did not have much germplasm in Minnesota, other than a wild-collected form of Manfreda virginica [Agave virginica], which was an extremely red-spotted form I received from the late Bob Stewart at Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan. During this time, Tony acquired another mangave—an incredible eBay score from Japan called ‘Bloodspot’. This mangave was an intentional hybrid between Manfreda maculosa [Agave maculata] and Agave macroacantha. Unlike the large architectural form of ‘Macho Mocha’, ‘Bloodspot’ was a small, cute plant with a multitude of heavily red-spotted narrow leaves.

In 2009, I moved to Michigan and began my career as a fulltime plant hybridizer at Walters Gardens. Among the 70 plus genera of plants I was working on was mangave. I began assembling a collection of Manfreda and, of course, the two known mangave hybrids. I began hybridizing them and through the generosity of Tony Avent, the JC Raulston Arboretum, and folks with private gardens, I amassed a substantial Agave pollen bank to work with.

In 2016, Walters Gardens introduced the first of my mangave hybrids, ‘Pineapple Express’, a selection of the 2011 cross between ×Mangave ‘Jaguar’ and ×Mangave ‘Bloodspot’. This rapidly growing hybrid produces an upright, pineapple-like crown of dark green leaves heavily dotted with burgundy spots.

Since the introduction of ‘Pineapple Express’ I have selected and named 82 mangave varieties. Thirty-five are currently marketed through the Mad About Mangave® program. Highlights include ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Red Wing’, ‘Mission to Mars’, and ‘Racing Stripes’. 

Mangaves resonate with a younger crowd. Although mangaves are embraced and collected by the succulent groups, millennials have taken them to another level through social media. As one collector put it: ‘They are so Instagrammable!’

The mangave project has been the most rewarding breeding project I have been involved in; unlike hostas or daylilies, the field was not crowded when I began making crosses, and many of the plants in the early work are standing the test of time and will provide the building blocks for future generations of hybridizers and gardeners.”