Johnny Appleseed With Agaves

1972 postcard showing Johnny Appleseed from

John Chapman, whom we know as Johnny Appleseed, is often shown striding across the country, broadcasting apple seeds everywhere he goes. While that’s romantic, it’s not true–he built nurseries, complete with fences around the trees (even then deer were chomping on your favorite plants) and sold or traded the trees. But he did spread a lot of apple trees around the Midwest.

I prefer the idea of the romantic figure. It’s heroic and bold. Apples won’t grow here in the Sonoran desert, so I’ve taken to agaves. These plants, which are related to yuccas, are native to the desert (not to be confused with the Mediterranean agaves).

Agave in foreground, the pink-bloomin plants in the back are Oleanders.

There are hundreds of species, but the ones I’m talking about are the ones that look like an explosion of green blades, each one ending in a thorn. Sigh. Every native plant ends in a thorn. Even our non-native lemon and orange trees have huge thorns on them.

These dense plants can take the searing heat of summer and a bit of frost in winter.

These agaves are busy–right now they are going to seed. Each plant sends up a lovely stem of bell-shaped coral flowers and then develops strongly-lobed seed heads. The seed heads are green at first, then develop a reddish tinge and finally turn brown and split open. The seeds are small and tear-shaped. They look a lot like apple seeds.

The seed head opens, dropping small black seeds on the ground.

On my morning walk, I gather the open seed heads and keep walking. Wherever I see a space that has water runoff–from a sprinkler, a drip system, a small arroyo, I drop the seeds.

Our odd summer and fall have confused this agave, which holds flowers, early seed heads and an open seed head on the same plant.

I know that many of them won’t survive, will serve as food for ground squirrels and winter migratory birds. That’s OK. This morning, as I was scattering more seeds, I noticed a few tiny plants from earlier scatterings. Maybe the gardener will pull them out. But maybe the gardener will transplant it instead. That’s what I love about plants–they are both the past and the future, and every seed head holds a thousand-year history of a plant that survived.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and naturalist that secretly scatters agave seeds throughout The Valley.