This summer I learned something that was contrary to what I had heard my whole life. The century plant is not truly a century plant. The misnamed century plant, Agave americana, typically lives only 10 to 30 years.
The plant usually grows to 24 – 26 feet tall. It flowers only once at the end of its life. The main stem has side branches. At the end of the main stem and all the branches are yellow flower clusters. The top of the clusters look flat. The plant dies after flowering, but produces suckers from the base. These will produce new plants.
I first became aware of this when we were visiting Presidio La Bahia in Goliad in May. The church for the fortress is shown above. We saw several century plants with their flowered stalks laying on the ground.
At first I thought they were either under watered or over watered.
Then when we returned home, there was an article in the “Goldthwaite Eagle” about a man who had planted a century plant when he was young. He had hoped that it would flower in his lifetime. There was a picture of him standing in front of the blooming tall stalk of his “century plant”. It had taken 24 years for it to bloom. The article then continued to provide information about this agave.
Also, on Neil Sperry’s e-Gardens Newsletter, Native Son Steven Chamblee wrote an article about life of century plants. He has some beautiful pictures of the flowers. The following is a quote from that article.
“Century plants flower only once, as they expend all of their energy into producing a giant flower stalk that rises to about 25 feet … and what a spectacle it is. Growing as fast as 5 inches per day, the prodigious peduncle stabs the sky like a giant, 5-inch-thick pencil, until it finally begins to form a candelabra-styled inflorescence of flowers. At first, the flower clusters look a bit like oval-shaped pods of lime-green AA batteries, all tightly-packed and standing on end, but the clusters soon produce a stunning halo of bright yellow flowers. Moths and hummingbirds pollinate the flowers, which mature into ripe fruits that don’t look too much different than the “pre-halo” flower clusters…”
It seems century plants are on lots of minds these days. For some reason, I am resistant to this new information. My mind wants to cling to the 100 years lifetime for this southwest icon.
“He who knows most, knows best how little he knows.” Thomas Jefferson