News Column

Flowers emerge at last on U-M's rare agave plant

July 9, 2014

By Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press



July 09--With a pop of yellow, the grand finale has begun in Ann Arbor, where a rare American agave plant has begun to bloom for the first and only time in 80 years.

"We just noticed some buds starting to open on the agave. At last!" said Joe Mooney, spokesman for the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. "We were beginning to think it would never cooperate. In the next few days, we should get some better flowering. Right now it's fairly meager."

The first flowers were spotted Tuesday afternoon on the lowest branch of the agave, which is beginning to show anthers or stamens or both, according to the botanical gardens' Facebook page.

Hundreds of people have flocked to the gardens to see the plant in recent weeks, as a huge stalk shot nearly 28 feet skyward and more than a thousand buds began to form on branch-like structures, called peduncles.

The agave should bloom for the next several weeks, after which, the plant will die, said Mike Palmer, horticulture manager.

Although the plant will die after it flowers, Palmer said it will 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 -- related to asparagus -- is unusual 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, Palmer said.

Often called century plants because they bloom so infrequently, Palmer has said that most agaves will bloom in nature in 10 to 25 years. The American agave is native to Texas and New Mexico, and also now can be seen in landscapes throughout the Southwest. The plant can be used to make an alcoholic beverage called mezcal.

Why it took so long for this particular plant to bloom is a mystery, he said.

"I don't know why it chose this year to flower. We're not sure what the environmental cues are to induce it into flowering," Palmer said in an earlier interview. "It was probably in a pot for a long time, which would reduce the progression of its growth."

What also makes this plant different is that its leaves are variegated, which is a genetic mutation.

"Eighty years ago, they found this, thought it was unique because in nature variegated plants usually don't survive," he said. "They have less chlorophyl, so they're not as robust growing. Also, variegated plants will sunburn."

In May, as the plant's stalk neared 20 feet tall, workers at the botanical gardens climbed a ladder and scaffolding to remove a glass panel from the roof of the conservatory so the plant would have room to grow through the ceiling.

Palmer is trying to contact the U.S. Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to find out what might happen next as the flowers open up. Right now, only the male parts of the flower are showing.

"It's even taking its time blooming," Mooney said.

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

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)


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