Although it is called the century plant, it typically lives only 10 to 30 years. It has a spread around 1.8–3.0 m (6–10 ft) with gray-green leaves of 0.9–1.5 m (3–5 ft) long, each with a prickly margin and a heavy spike at the tip that can pierce deeply. Near the end of its life, the plant sends up a tall, branched stalk, laden with yellow blossoms, that may reach a total height up to 8–9 m (25–30 ft).
Its common name derives from its semelparous nature of flowering only once at the end of its long life. The plant dies after flowering, but produces adventitious shoots from the base, which continue its growth.
A. americana is cultivated as an ornamental plant for the large dramatic form of mature plants—for modernist, drought-tolerant, and desert-style cactus gardens—among many planted settings. It is often used in hot climates and where drought conditions occur. The plants can be evocative of 18th-19th-century Spanish colonial and Mexican provincial areas in the Southwestern United States, California, and xeric Mexico. It is also a popular landscape plant in dry beach gardens in Florida and coastal areas of the Southeastern United States.
When grown as a house plant, A. americana is tolerant of light levels ranging from direct sunlight to shade and requires little watering. It does require a winter resting period at temperatures around 10 to 12 °C (50 to 54 °F). It should be grown in a very porous, sandy potting soil, allowed to dry out between waterings, and repotted every spring.