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.

Agave, Abstract, California

Birth Marks : Prints Available

The fascinating abstract shapes of an agave acccented by a little late morning sunshine in my yard in Pasadena, California.

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.

Blooming, Century plant, Agave americana

Spire of Light : Prints Available

A blooming century plant (Agave americana) in my backyard, with late evening light. 

Century Plant, Flowering, Agave americana

Once in a Lifetime : Prints Available

This image shows the enormous flowering stock of a Agave americana (sometimes called a century plant) living in my backyard. Stalks like this only flower once, after which that portion of the plant withers and dies away.

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!

Rufous Hummingbird, Century Plant, Agave americana

Young Rufous : Prints Available

A young Rufous Hummingbird feeding from the prolific blooms from this flowering century plant (Agave americana).

Two Rufous Hummingbirds go at it among the flowers!

Two Rufous Hummingbirds go at it among the flowers!

The fights get pretty serious (no one was actually harmed, though).

The fights get pretty serious (no one was actually harmed, though).

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.

Desert Agave, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

Mescal in the Raw : Prints Available

A large and healthy desert agave in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

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.

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2 Comments to “Once in a Lifetime ~ Century Plant”

  1. These plants are gorgeous, especially after the flowers turn red.

  2. justin says:

    This is one of the things I love the most about nature photography is the patterns and colors you get out of something that’s usually just passed by without a second thought. It’s taking something seen every day and putting it through your mind’s artistic filter.