Towering American agave plant that waited 80 years to flower has 1 more month to live

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ANN ARBOR, Michigan — A towering American agave plant that waited 80 years to flower and produce seeds is dying after fulfilling its purpose and will be taken down next month, said its caretaker at the University of Michigan's botanical gardens.

The unusually old specimen has called Ann Arbor home since 1934. It grew to 28 feet tall after a rapid growth spurt last spring that preceded its flowering, which ended last year. Once it stopped flowering, the agave went into rapid decline, which is normal for the species, said Mike Palmer, horticulture manager at the school's Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

"There's really no value to leaving it up anymore, because it's going downhill so quickly," he said.

The agave produced "tons" of seeds, including one pod that contained 86 of them, Palmer said. Students have been picking viable seeds that will be distributed to botanical gardens throughout the U.S. Some seedlings will be sold in the university's garden store.

Palmer said he hasn't decided what to do with the fibrous stalk, which will be brought down with a saw, but that he gave a sample of it to a music professor who is testing to determine whether a musical instrument could be made from it.

The plant is a variegated form of the American agave, which is native to Mexico and the American Southwest. Variegated plants often have some other color than green in their leaves. The variegated pattern is usually striped but sometimes can be blotched or muted throughout the leaf. In nature, without man cultivating them, variegated plants don't usually survive to reproduce successfully.

"We can't know for sure," Palmer said, but the agave most likely flowers once and dies because it uses so many resources to bloom in a harsh and extreme environment.

Although it is known as the century plant, the American agave typically lives 10 to 30 years.

"We don't know why it took ours so long to bloom," Palmer said.

In addition to the Michigan specimen's unusually long life, it surprised Palmer by not producing "pups," or genetic clones, which officials had wanted to use to propagate the species at the conservatory.

Instead, they'll use the seeds from the pods to create a new agave where it now stands, although the new agave will "be slightly different," said Palmer, who cared for the plant during the past 15 years.

"It was a good run," he said.


Mike Householder can be reached at mhouseholder@ap.org and http://twitter.com/mikehouseholder

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