Plant of the Month

Century Plant (Agave americana)

by Guest Author Susan Nicholls

Century Plant at the Bloedel Conservatory. Photo copyright Vicky Earle.

We have a beautiful (and large) Century plant (Agave americana) at the Bloedel Conservatory. It is also commonly known as maguey or American aloe, and is originally from northeastern Mexico. These days, the Agave can be found in gardens worldwide as an ornamental plant.  It has naturalized in many regions, and grows wild in Europe, South Africa, India, and Australia. The maguey was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Hispanic Mexico.

The common name, century plant, stems from the belief that this agave lives for 100 years, however, that is a misnomer probably resulting from a lack of observation1.  In fact, the plant usually lives 10 to 30 years.  Agave americana forms a spreading, stemless rosette of tapered grey-green leaves that can be as long as 2 metres (6.6 feet).  Each leaf has tiny spines all along its borders, and a sharp spike at the tip – be careful getting too close, as this spike can pierce to the bone!  Agaves grow from seeds; the Agave americana can spread by sending up suckers (bulbils) at its base or “pups” as far as 15 feet away.

Flower stalks of Agave americana. Photo courtesy Creative Commons.

Like most agaves, this variety can take years to bloom. It is definitely an occasion worthy of note, one that is spectacular as the plant sends up a showy bloom spike that can grow 15 to 40 feet! It is topped with a cabbage-like clusters of small white or yellow flowers.  The flowers may last as long as a month before withering, at which time the entire plant dies. Truly a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event. Luckily, the roots survive and send up new ‘pups’.

In September, 1933, Time Magazine recounted the story of the blooming of a 50 year-old plant.  “Last July a 50 year-old plant…began pushing a stalk bud up through its central core…Last month the stalk began to grow at the rate of an inch an hour, grew 15 feet high, put out 600 grey-green buds…Crowds came to gape at the monster stalk, the sulky buds.”  Four weeks after the bloom stalk emerged “a Park botanist saw one bud opening…but was afraid to start premature hopes…two days later there were 20 blooms, next 43 more.” 1

Flowers of Agave americana. Photo courtesy Creative Commons

If the flower stalk is cut out as soon as it appears, the plant will produce a sweet sap known as agua miel (“honey water”), which was traditionally fermented by the indigenous people of Mexico to produce a drink called pulquePulque is still consumed today. After Cortez brought the technology of distillation to Mexico in 1519, pulque began to be distilled to make mescal, a strong liquor similar to tequila but with a smoky flavor.  Agave hearts are steamed to make tequila from a different variety of agave, the Agave tequilana (blue agave).  For mescal, the piñas (hearts) are roasted in fire pits before being fermented and then distilled.  The infamous worm is found in mescal, not tequila, and is the larval form of a moth that lives on the agave plant.

Close up of Agave americana leaves. Notice the tiny spines! Photo copyright Susan Nicholls

Agave americana has many uses beyond the production of mescal.  Its leaves are very fibrous, and are used to make rope, matting, and coarse cloth, and for piteado, a technique for embroidering leather.

Agave nectar, made variously from the piña or extracted directly from the spines of the plant, is currently marketed as a low-glycemic sugar substitute.

When the Century Plant at the Conservatory gets ready to bloom, be ready to come in and see this spectacular event! We’ll be sure to let you know!

References:

1. Time Magazine (1933). Science:  Half-century plant.  Time, September 11, 1933. http://time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,746038,00.html

2. Baldwin, D. L.  (2010).  Succulent Container Gardens, p. 70.  Portland, OR:  Timber Press.

3.  Stein, G. (2010).  Introduction to agaves.  Retrieved April 11, 2011, from http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/199/

4. Wikipedia.org.  (2011).  Agave americana. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave_americana

5. The magic of Oaxaca’s Mezcal. http://www.mezcal-de-oaxaca.com

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