UM plant that waited 80 years to flower is cut down

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

A towering American agave plant was cut down Wednesday after it waited 80 years to flower and produce seeds.

The unusually old plant had been growing in Ann Arbor since 1934. It grew 28 feet tall after a rapid growth spurt last spring at the University of Michigan’s botanical gardens. Then it flowered before going into rapid decline.

It took four workers around one minute on Wednesday to saw down a 22-foot portion of the plant. The men carefully lowered the stalk and carried it from the gardens.

The plant died naturally as part of its normal life cycle, said Michael Palmer, horticulture manager at the school’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

“It was kind of sad, but we have seedlings now so they will again create the circle of life,” he said.

Portions of the stalk are destined to become musical instruments, Palmer said.

“Definitely flutes made by a University of Michigan professor in the School of Music,” he said. “And then we’ve had another person ask about using the stalk to make a didgeridoo.”

A didgeridoo is an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument formed from a long wooden tube, traditionally made from a hollow branch.

The agave produced “tons” of seeds, including one pod that contained 86 of them, Palmer said. Students collected viable seeds that will be distributed to botanical gardens throughout the U.S. Some seedlings eventually will be sold in the university’s garden store while others will be placed in a glass case where the agave grew for decades.

“We won’t be selling the seeds because the seeds are extremely variable on how they will germinate and we don’t want people to be disappointed,” Palmer said. “But we will be growing plants and eventually, it takes a long time for them to get to sellable size, and we’ll sell some of the seedlings.”

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.

Agave plants most likely die after flowering just once because they use so many resources to bloom in harsh and extreme environments, Palmer said.

Although it is known as the century plant, the American agave typically blooms after 25 to 35 years, Palmer said.

“We don’t know why it took ours so long to bloom,” he said.

Palmer said he “sort of gave up hope” of seeing the plant bloom until another volunteer alerted him to new flowers in April of last year.

“I think it is quite an anomaly but there’s not a lot of statistics on it,” he said of the plant’s lifespan.

In addition to living so long, the Michigan specimen surprised Palmer by not producing “pups,” or genetic clones, which officials wanted to use to propagate the species at the conservatory.

Instead, they’ll use the seeds from the pods to create a new agave, although the new plant will “be slightly different” than the one cut down Wednesday, said Palmer, who cared for the plant during the past 15 years.

“It was a good run,” he said.

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Associated Press contributed.