GARFIELD PARK — The common name for the agave Americana would lead you to believe its bloom is an event a hundred years in the making.
But the flowering “century plant” specimen at the Garfield Park Conservatory is really 55-60 years old.
Nicknamed Maya by staff at the conservatory, the plant is now entering her final phase of life as hundreds of flowers blossom at the top of her 38-foot-tall spike, which now shoots through the glass roof of the West Side conservatory.
The plant blossoms only once in its entire life, putting all its energy into the thick, asparagus-like spear shooting up from the center of its massive spiny leaves. Maya lives in the desert room of the conservatory, and her spear grew so tall this year parts of the glass roof had to be removed to allow her to grow past the height of the ceiling.
Poking out above the conservatory, Maya’s intense yellow flowers are bursting from their buds, releasing a sweet, musky scent to lure in pollinators for her only chance to spread her seeds. It’s an amazing sight, said floriculturist Ray Jorgensen, who said it’s a bittersweet moment knowing the beautiful display is the culmination of the plant’s entire life before it passes away.
“The plant is 8 feet tall, and the inflorescence is about 38 feet tall. … It’s special, in some ways monumental, just for it to explode in its swan song with all the flowers,” Jorgensen said.
Although Maya will soon wither and die now that her flowers are in bloom, she lived a full life, much longer than most century plants in the wild.
A century plant in nature doesn’t get close to 100 years old and will sprout its spike and flower as soon as it musters enough energy. But Jorgensen said domesticated specimens live much longer. In Maya’s case, the conditions of the conservatory have slowed her growth enough to allow her to live up to three times longer.
“They usually flower and then start to die. And it’s 20, 25, you know, maybe 30 years but really very, very rarely a longer period than that,” he said. “But out of habitat, in captivity north of the border, it takes them longer to do that. They grow longer, and actually a lot of times they get bigger, which is weird.”
The agave family, which includes the century plant, is most well known for its role in the production of tequila and mezcal. But agave plants have been cultivated by people in Central America for thousands of years for food and fiber. The fibers of the leaves have been used historically to weave an incredibly strong rope, or pulped and used to make paper, while the stalk, leaves, flowers and the heart of the agave are all edible.
As a tribute to the importance of the agave Americana and its many uses, the folks nurturing the century plant over the years decided to name her Maya, after the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, who is personified by the century plant.
Maya will continue flowering for weeks, and the plant could remain for quite some time despite its death bloom. But her stalk will eventually have to be cut when winter comes so the ceiling panes that were removed from the glass dome of the conservatory can be replaced. Once the spike is truncated, the leaves of the plant will naturally deteriorate until it is replaced with newer specimens to fill the 8-foot-diameter space taken up by the century plant.
Until then, Jorgensen wants people to be able to celebrate the beauty of the century plant’s incredible life cycle.
“Before it reaches that time at the end of its life for it to be flowering, it’s pretty spectacular,” he said.
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