Saturday, February 12, 2011

Death of a century plant

The century plant (Agave americana) is the most common and one of the largest agave species. A fast grower and prolific producer of suckers, it forms huge colonies over time. In California’s Central Valley where I live, it’s frequently seen at the entrance to rural properties, or lining fences. With its vicious end spines and serrated leaf margins, it truly makes a formidable barrier.

On our way to the closest Costco warehouse we drive by a large century plant colony. I’ve been meaning to photograph it for many years, but I didn’t get around to it until this week. These photos aren’t beauty shots, but they illustrate the aftermath of some of the rosettes flowering. Most agave species are monocarpic, meaning they will die after they flower. While this sounds like a tragic event, it really isn’t: a) It takes many years, sometimes decades, for an agave to flower, and b) most produce a generous amounts of offsets, or suckers, before they do die.

When a small agave that is, say, one or two feet across dies, removing it from your garden is a relatively easy task, spines notwithstanding. However, imagine what happens when one of the giant species kicks the bucket, for example the ubiquitous century plant! The photos below give you a pretty good idea. As you look at them, keep in mind that the colony in these pictures is easily 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. The rosettes that died likely were 7-8 feet tall, and the flower stalk they produced (the things that look like tree trunks) a good 25 feet high. Now think of what’s involved removing the dead plants, full of protrusions and edges that are sharp as a knife. Yikes!

110210_agave_americana7
 
110210_agave_americana1
 
110210_agave_americana6
 
110210_agave_americana5
 
110210_agave_americana3
 
110210_agave_americana4
 

I love agaves, but the common century plant is so huge and hostile that I would never consider planting it—even if I had a few acres to play with. While the gray-blue coloring is attractive, there are many better choices for gardens.

When I visited Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek last week, I spotted this agave flower stalk, freshly retired from doing duty as a Christmas tree. What a neat idea! Seeing it brought a smile to my face.

110203_rbg_agave_flower_stalk
I don’t know from what species this flower stalk is, but it’s much smaller than you’d find
on Agave americana.

1 comment:

  1. Agave americana is still considered a novelty exotic plant in here, and lots of people still attempt to get it to huge proportions in their garden. Some succesfull, most aren't especially this winter.

    They're a bugger to remove indeed once it dies, and can be very unsightly. The pups do take over and hopefully cover the mother plant's remains.

    I do like that Agave flower stalk Christmas tree, how funky!!

    ReplyDelete