Photo © Larry Ditto
An Agave for the Ages
Except for bluebonnet mania, is there any more acclaimed horticultural experience in Texas than the blooming of a century plant? OK, maybe hordes of tourists don’t line residential streets to see towering agave stalks that look as if they grew from Jack’s famous beans.
Many folks can’t get enough of the evolving spectacle, however, from the first tiny oh-my-goodness-it’s-blooming buds to the sky-high yellow flower pods big enough to attract a crowd of hummingbirds. As the stalks climb skyward (up to 25 feet high), friends and family can pose in photos to show themselves dwarfed by the phenomenon.
Century plants (Agave americana) are native plants that need lots of sun and little water. The blue-green foliage shoots out in thick, 4-foot-long spears with razor-sharp points and a prickly margin. These plants need to be placed at least 6 feet away from areas where people and pets could brush up against them.
As the plant matures, it propagates by sprouting up little “pups” around the base. After the parent plant has died, remove and transplant the pups and start the growing adventure all over again.
The largest and most majestic of the native Texas agaves, this species often grows up to 6 feet tall in nonblooming years.
Despite its name, the century plant does not live for 100 years or bloom only once every century. In fact, it typically lives only 10 to 30 years. While not much is known about what causes the plant to finally bloom, we do know that it is monocarpic, meaning it will only bloom once, usually not for at least a decade.
There are four subspecies of Agave americana. The marginata variant grows slower, and the leaves have yellow margins. The medio-picto alba variety has a creamy white stripe and grows only to 4 feet. The striata has a fine stripe of creamy yellow, and the subspecies protoamericana has a wild population in eastern Mexico.