FOR WEB ONLY!! Yuccas and agaves add shape and modern punch to any garden.

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by Valerie Easton

YUCCAS AND AGAVES — I can rarely distinguish between the two — are the darlings of the gardening world. And for good reason. What easy-care plant brings more drama to the garden than these spiky, bladed beauties?

We never used to think we could grow plants that look like backdrops for a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. And maybe in our roses/rhododendron phase we didn’t even want to. But now, thanks to plant exploration and global warming, there’s an entire repertoire of these statuesque drought-lovers that live through our winters. In this climate, both yuccas and agaves are more in danger of drowning than freezing to death.

Agave leaves grow in rosettes from a mostly invisible stem. Their leaves are thick and succulent with wicked spines at the tip or along the edges. Some yuccas grow in clumps similar to agaves, while others are treelike, with bursts of foliage atop tall trunks.

Both yuccas and agaves are utilitarian plants, long a staple of native peoples. American Indians ate yuccas, and depended on them for medicine and clothing. They wove yucca’s fibrous leaves into baskets and ropes, or burned them to make blue dye from the ashes. We still use yucca extract in soaps and shampoos. Agaves were objects of worship for the Aztecs, who also ate, drank, wove and built with them.

History aside, the clean-lined, simple shapes of yuccas and agaves look stunningly modern, while their easy-care ways must surely qualify them as “modest footprint” plants. They guzzle neither water nor nutrients; give them sun, good drainage and a little water until established, and these tough plants quickly become self-sufficient.

If your garden is more flowery or traditional than tropical, it can be difficult to picture how the bold forms of agaves and yuccas might look growing along hydrangeas and delphinium, phlox or boxwood. Simply consider them an instant update. What other kind of plant brings such structure to the garden, whether planted in an urn or amid a sea of groundcover?

Too many sharp, spiky plants, however, and your garden feels uninvitingly aggressive and . . . well . . . just too masculine. Not enough, and it looks overly sweet. Try for a balance of just enough yuccas and agaves for punctuation, soothed by plants with less belligerent shapes.

Think of yuccas and agaves as living garden art: They can’t help but stand out as focal points. Or, easiest and most effective, just stick several in big pots and enjoy their sculptural presence close up, year-round.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.