News Column

After 80 years, U-M's rare agave plant begins to bloom first and only time

July 10, 2014

By Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press

July 10--Beyond the Amazon lilies and the Indian banyan tree, past the pomegranate and where the flowers of the lady slipper vine hang over a terrace, a massive 80-year-old American agave plant has begun to bloom.

Onlookers gathered Wednesday to see the wispy yellow flowers emerge from more than a thousand buds high up on the 28-foot stalk of the rare plant in the conservatory of the University of Michigan'sMatthaei Botanical Gardens.

Sara Swierczynski and Jay Perry, both 22 of Ann Arbor, have come each week for the last month to watch the plant, which is related to asparagus, as it begins its grand finale. This is the only time it will bloom in its lifespan.

"I thought they'd be bigger," Perry said of the flowers, which began to unfurl Tuesday afternoon. "I think it's just beginning. We'll be back next week for sure."

Nathaniel Sung, 8, of Northville raced up to the plant Wednesday afternoon, asking rapid-fire questions of Mike Palmer, horticulturist for the gardens and Nichols Arboretum.

"Wow! It is higher than the ceiling! What are the green things that go like this?" he asked, holding his hands in the shape of the buds. Nathaniel then pointed to the huge stalk, and asked: "Will it crash on the other plants?"

Palmer laughed, and explained that the green things are flower buds on the verge of opening, and that the stalk will have to be closely monitored to make sure it doesn't fall.

Over the next several weeks, the agave will fully bloom, and then die. Palmer said it it is likely to leave behind many pups -- genetic clones that look like mini versions of the mother agave -- and potentially thousands of seeds.

Visitors will be able to buy some of those seeds and baby plants, if all goes as planned, Palmer said.

This agave is unique because it was collected during a university botanical expedition to San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in 1934, and brought back to Ann Arbor by botanist Alfred Whiting, then a U-M graduate student. This variegated form of the American agave was collected from the wild, unlike most agaves sold today, which are cultivated from tissue samples, he said.

Often called century plants because they bloom so infrequently, Palmer said most agaves will bloom in nature in 10 to 25 years. The American agave is native to Texas and New Mexico, and can now be seen in landscapes throughout the Southwest.

In nature, the plants are pollinated primarily by Mexican long-nosed bats, sphinx moths and hummingbirds. To pollinate the flowers here in Michigan, Palmer says workers may have to use sticks to rub the pollen on the anthers and the stigma of the flowers to ensure seeds are made.

All the fuss over the plant has led to a 50% rise in visitors at the gardens so far this spring and summer, said spokesman Joe Mooney.

"It's got it all: life, death, transfiguration, rebirth," he said.

Palmer reached his hand toward the center of the plant and felt one of its tentacle-like leaves. He pointed out the wrinkles beginning to form, and the sagging tissue.

"All of its energy is going into the stalk," he said. "It's losing its turgidity" -- signs that this truly is the beginning of the end for the enormous agave.

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.


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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)

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