Texan botany is a crowded landscape, at least figuratively speaking. So many plants have become cherished state symbols: Bluebonnets are beautiful, prickly pears are rugged, and pecan trees are stately. East Texans have their longleaf and loblolly pines, West Texans are fond of yucca and ocotillo, and in San Angelo, folks love their water lilies. Even among these exceptional Texan flora, however, the century plant stands out.
Sometimes called the granddaddy of agaves, the century plant demands attention. Its spiny leaves sprawl out like octopus tentacles, eventually occupying the same amount of space as a mid-sized car. Mature century plants can reach six feet in height and ten feet in circumference, and that’s before they grow their most imposing, eye-catching feature later in life. Pass a century plant in flower, and you can’t help but stop to look up. Its towering bloom sometimes stretches twenty to thirty feet into the sky.
Before we go any further, let’s address the tall tale in the name: No, the century plant does not live for a century. Nowhere close, in fact. Most individuals survive for ten to thirty years. Nor is life span the only ambiguous aspect of the century plant’s name. Just as the word “panther” can refer to several big cat species, the term “century plant” is used to describe more than one kind of agave.
Although it’s often associated with West Texas, Agave americana (the species most commonly referred to as a century plant) rarely grows wild there. In that region, it’s found only in gardens, says Carolyn Whiting, a botanist at Big Bend National Park. Instead, the majestic plant you’ve likely seen in scenic photos from the park is Agave havardiana, also called the Chisos agave or Havard’s century plant. Most folks don’t know the difference.“The reason people confuse the two is they actually do look pretty similar,” Whiting says. To her expert eye, however, it is easy to differentiate the two. “The flowering stalk on the americana is much bigger. Overall, the whole plant on the americana is bigger than [Big Bend’s] native havardiana.”
That flowering stalk is the most spectacular trait shared by americana, harvadiana, and other agaves. They all have a penchant for flamboyant, tragically poetic deaths.
For most of their days, century plants live as sedan-sized balls of spikes. They’re a bit like oversized, awkward sea urchins, with fleshy leaves, subtle silver-blue colors, and unmistakable silhouettes that wouldn’t look out of place in an alien landscape from a science-fiction film. Then, just when they finally bloom and reach their peak beauty, it’s time to die.
At the end of its life, the century plant thrusts a single, flower-adorned stalk toward the heavens. To say this happens overnight would be an exaggeration, but only just. Century plants grow several vertical inches a day, so in the space of a few weeks, the plant world’s equivalent of a skyscraper towers over what was once a cozy botanical bungalow. Although a century plant in bloom possesses treelike proportions, it doesn’t look like any tree out there—its confusingly narrow trunk, when coupled with its disproportionate height and strange branching pattern, looks like a whimsical Dr. Seuss illustration come to life.
Whimsical, but useful too. The flowers of a century plant are a vital source of nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Look up at a century plant in flower, and you’ll see these and other pollinators hovering atop it. “Think ‘buzzing’ and ‘moving,’ ” says Dave Forehand, vice president of gardens at the Dallas Arboretum. “There’s daytime pollinators and then, at night when the flowers are completely opened, there’s nighttime pollinators,” including bats. “Between the hummingbirds and everything, it’s a whole ecosystem.” The plant exhausts all its resources on creating this wonder and dies shortly afterward. Ever-inspiring, however, the dying century plant leaves behind bits of optimism. Look under the brown, dried-up leaves and you’ll see new life: dozens of “pups” (genetically identical offshoots of the recently deceased plant) pop up, ready to repeat the cycle.
Owing to their scale and otherworldliness, flowering century plants can draw crowds. Last year, an especially grand one in Houston’s Ormond Place neighborhood made the local news, while a gardener in Luthersville, Georgia, told the Washington Post this summer that confused passersby were so impressed by her century plant that they asked for her autograph.
While the sky-high bloom usually gets all the limelight, the rest of the plant is also pretty darn cool. Its thick, valley-shaped leaves create shaded alcoves where grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, and other crawlers can escape the summer’s triple-digit heat. Closer inspection reveals unexpected geometric patterns, as if someone pressed inked stamps of a smaller agave leaf onto the larger leaf’s surface. This is the result of the leaves being so tightly compacted in their early stages of growth that their serrated edges tattoo themselves into each other, a process known as bud imprinting.
Some gardeners draw a distinction between “wild” and “domesticated” century plants. But the reality is more complex. “It was a symbiosis . . . humans shaped agaves, and agaves shaped humans,” says Wendy Hodgson, senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. For at least seven thousand years, Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest have found myriad uses for the century plant. When baked in a pit, the century plant’s core creates a carbohydrate-rich meal that was a staple of pre-Columbian diets. The plant’s leaves provide fibers that can used to make rope and clothing, which can be sewn with a needle made from the spine at the end of each leaf. And, although tequila is derived from a different species of agave, century plants can be used to make both fine mezcal and pulque (a milky drink with the same alcohol content as strong beer). In fact, pulque is the product of amputating a century plant’s once-in-a-lifetime flower stalk and fermenting the sap originally intended to nourish its Seussian heights.
Originally gathered from the wild, century plants were first actively cultivated around five thousand years ago, first in what is now modern Mexico and, later, in the modern United States. Thousands of years of cyclical migration and agriculture complicate questions surrounding the century plant’s original, “wild” home.
“[With] crops that have been cultivated for millennia, often it becomes difficult to tell where it’s native and where it’s not,” says Fran de la Mota, the director of horticulture at the Houston Botanic Garden. He compares the century plant’s relationship with Texan and Mexican landscapes to that of olive trees in the Mediterranean. Both kinds of plants were “used a long time ago, escaped cultivation, and now [have] been part of the landscape for a long time.” In this way, century plants are totems of a timeless Texas that predates the modern state and will be here long after it’s gone.
On a tip from one of de la Mota’s colleagues, I finally encountered an in-bloom century plant not in the wilderness, but in the front garden of a corner house in a Houston suburb. After learning about the impreciseness of terms like “wild,” “indigenous,” and “domesticated” when it comes to century plants, an otherwise unremarkable garden seemed an especially appropriate setting. Even up close, the plant’s proportions looked unnatural, as if stretched in Photoshop.
Standing before it, I found myself thinking of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem “Ozymandias,” a sonnet that meditates on human impermanence. In the poem, Shelley describes a crumbling desert statue of an ancient, long-forgotten pharaoh. He once ruled over a powerful empire that he assumed would last forever, but now all that’s left is sand. You can interpret the lines however you’d like—maybe they’re brutal, maybe they’re reassuring. As I craned my neck up at the enormous bloom, surrounded by modern buildings that will someday be gone, the message struck me as oddly comforting. No matter what we do, every few decades a century plant’s twenty-foot stalk will still bring beauty to an otherwise sparse landscape.
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