Century Agave: Out with a bang

Pictured above and to the right is the Century plant at the front of our home here in Phoenix. You can see it is near the end of its life because it has sent up a 9-foot tall stalk, laden with flowers that have begun to blossom.

The Century Plant is one of the most misunderstood plants plentiful here in Arizona. Many people assume it is a cactus.  It is not.  It is an Agave Americana, in the family Asparagaceae and commonly found in Mexico, Texas, and other southwest US States.  It has been introduced to the West Indies, South America, Africa, India, China, Thailand, and even Australia.  Despite the common name of “American Aloe,” it is not a close relative of the genus Aloe.

Some people believe the “century” name means it lives for 100 years. It does not. It typically lives only 15 to 30 years.  Others believe it takes one hundred years for the plant to flower, when in fact, it flowers only once, at the end of its rather long life. This plant will die after flowering but will produce adventitious shoots, meaning at the base of the plant, versus the top.  These shoots nearly always result in a new baby Century starting within a few months.

Before shooting out its enormously high stalk, it will grow up to six feet high.  It has grayish/blue/green spiny leaves with sharp tips.  It has been a beautiful plant and we will be sorry to see it die.  One consolation, as the flowers bloom in their final act, the nectar attracts all sorts of birds and insects from far and wide.  The odor, unnoticed by humans, emanates from the plant creating an invitation to a free, non-stop, raucous going away party around the plant.

In Pre-Columbian Mexico, natives cut the flower stem before it blossomed, taking the sugary liquid from the inside and the sap from the leaves, fermenting it, and producing the milk-colored pulque, the predecessor of tequila. Initially, pulque was considered sacred and had limited use.  After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the drink became secular and consumption of it rose, reaching a peak in the late 19th century.  It eventually lost out to beer.  Mezcal and tequila (which is a variety of mescal) are made from cooking parts of various agave plants, mostly blue agave.

We’ll miss our plant, but only for a while.