GARFIELD PARK — An uncommon agave plant at the Garfield Park Conservatory is bucking all expectations as it flowers for the first and only time.
The Agave guiengola living in the Desert House of the Conservatory has spent at least 35 years saving up the energy to send up its death bloom, a single flowering spike that will blossom before the plant dies.
But while most botanical literature suggests the spike of the Agave guiengola could reach up to 10 feet, this one has already grown to twice that height, said floriculturist Ray Jorgensen.
“When it first started unfurling, it was so sculptural. It was very sensual, the way it opened up. Now it’s very impressive in its size and beauty,” Jorgensen said. “People love them so much because they’re such a beautiful sculptural plant and they’re really big and have leaves that cluster.”
The conservatory’s agave, affectionately called Guien, began sending up its flower spike Dec. 6. Since then, Guien’s spike has grown to 20 feet and 7 inches and counting.
Also known as an inflorescence, the spike grew as quickly as 9 inches per day during its most aggressive growth period. The stalk’s growth slowed recently as its hundreds of flowers began to unfurl and blossom.
Guien’s spike has already grown so high it is just a few feet from hitting the glass roof
In 2019, an Agave americana at the conservatory grew to be 38 feet tall, and panes of the glass roof had to be removed to allow it to rise. But if Guien continues to grow, “it’s way too cold to take the glass off,” Jorgensen said.
Guien’s inflorescence looks notably different than that of the more common agave americana species, often called the century plant. While the spike of the americana species branches out and flowers only at the top, Guien is flowering all along one single spike “like a stalk of asparagus,” Jorgensen said.
The flowers of the Agave guiengola are “a creamy white” with a strong musky smell. Like many other types of agave, Guien produces an excess of thick, sweet nectar that visitors can see “dripping down from the flower, running down the leaves and making a puddle on the sidewalk,” Jorgensen said.
The plant flowers only once in its lifetime before withering and dying, so it is essential to attract plenty of pollinators during that window so it can reproduce. In the wild, the sweet, sticky nectar beckons to bats and insects that spread pollen as they feed.
“It’s kind of a way station for bats. They have a really tight relationship. … It produces copious amounts of nectar that gives the bats a good food source,” Jorgensen said.
Not many bats frequent the conservatory, so the horticulturists pollinate the flowers by hand with paintbrushes.
The Agave guiengola is uncommon because it is endemic to one specific habitat: Cerro Guiengola, a limestone mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it grows on sheer cliff faces.
Guien’s 20-foot spike is twice as large as what is typically expected in nature, though specimens in Oaxacan botanical gardens are known to grow similarly large, Jorgensen said.
“She’s trying to imitate skyscrapers because she’s in Chicago,” Jorgensen said.
It’s not just the death bloom that’s especially large: It’s the body of the plant, too. Most of the botanical literature indicates the plant’s rosette of thick fleshy leaves will typically grow to a diameter of less than 4 feet across. Guien is twice as large, at more than 8 feet across.
“She’s so much bigger than everything I’ve read says she should be,” Jorgensen said. “To do that in Chicago is startling, cool. It’s fun to see people get into it.”
Guien will flower for several weeks before “passing on to the nether lands where all good agave go,” Jorgensen said. But she will continue to live on through her seeds and through genetically identical offshoots that have sprung out from the main plant.
“She’s going to do her thing and it’ll be her swan song. They’re all striking and beautiful … and all the attention she’s gotten, she’s kind of a celebrity,” Jorgensen said.
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