As I rose, I turned to look at the tall plant that had been at the edge of my vision while I was sitting on the wet log bench in the garden. What was this? A tall stalk with inflorescence symmetrically placed on two sides. I looked down and found it was growing out of a low succulent. It reminded me of an aloe, which spends most of its life as a succulent, but grows a long stem now and then to hold flowers. But this wasn’t an aloe; it turned out to be a century plant (Agave americana).
The bush of succulent leaves was drooping a bit now, but it would never have reached above my hips, so maybe it would have been a meter high. The flower spike, on the other hand, was almost twice my height, so perhaps around 4 meters. From what I read, the plant spends its whole life gathering enough resources to put out this spike with its cyme of yellow flowers. Then, its job done, it dies. In this place I didn’t see any pollinators visiting the flowers.
The native range of the plant seems to be southern USA down to Mexico. It is a desert plant, and is said to take thirty to forty years to bloom. Its succulent leaves store water and nutrients, and when it has enough it spikes into flower. It seems to have been brought to Europe around 1520 CE, and first botanical description was written by Jacob Anton Cortosus of Padua in 1561. It may have come to parts of Asia earlier, perhaps even a thousand years earlier. However, its present use as a garden plant probably spread with European colonialism.
If God exists I hope he has a good excuseBoris Grushenko (Love and Death, 1975)
I found that water is the crucial ingredient that limits the flowering of a related plant. Although I couldn’t find a similar study for this one, I suppose the fact that it has begun to flower immediately after the monsoon could be an indicator that this one also behaves similarly. It is possible that in many places with abundant light and water, the plant actually has a much shorter life. Its cousin, the Agave deserti, produces one viable seed out of a million, and usually propagates vegetatively. I suppose that must be true of this plant too, since it is a very successful weed.