In our backyard in Pasadena we have a huge Agave americana, also known as the century plant, which decided this year to put out it’s one and only bloom. The agave is native to very arid environments in Mexico and the southern US, and it has evolved to spend 10-30 years (no, not a full century) accumulating water and building sugar stores until it has enough energy to produce a single, final and grandiose, flowering stalk that can be over 30 feet tall. About 6 months ago I shared the below abstract image of it’s handsome leaves. Little did I realize that the leaves were, at the time, full of the water and energy that the plant has now been using to propel it’s 30 foot asparagus like stalk into the air.
If cut down early, the sugary sap can be harvested as aguamiel (“honey water”) and fermented into a sour and yeasty drink called pulque, otherwise all that sugar serves as the reward for pollinators that may come from miles away. By contrast, tequila is made from the sugary sap that collects in the bulbs of the Agave tequilana. Curious to see the flowers of our Agave americana, we let it continue to grow over the course of the past 3 months to it’s current 30+ feet.
Just this past week the flowers finally started blooming, attracting what seems like all the neighborhood’s hummingbirds – at times there were 8 or more birds buzzing around the flowers. They appear to spend as much time chasing one another away as they do drinking nectar, making me wonder how energy efficient their efforts really are. I didn’t see a single adult male, though, so maybe the young boys still have a thing or two to learn about sharing and energy efficiency. The patio below the flowering stalk is wet and sticky with nectar droplets, so there must be plenty of sugary treats to go around. If the flowers weren’t so high off the ground and protected by a 6 foot diameter array of lance-like leaves I’d be able to tell you exactly how delicious that liquid is!
After the flowers are pollinated–and judging by the numbers of pollinators, they will all be pollinated–the flowers will form seed capsules to start the next generation. Some of these capsules, and in other species nearly all of them, will actually develop into tiny agave “plantlets” or “bulbils” while still on the stalk. When the stalk dries out and falls to the ground with a large crash the little plantlets will be scattered, starting new agave colonies. Although each plant only flowers once, it also continuously produces tens of “suckers,” allowing it to spread laterally.
Our plant managed to weave its way between two power lines (which I’ve had to work around with my compositional choices), so unfortunately we won’t be able to watch it for much longer without worrying about the consequences of it falling over.