Late-blooming cactus at city conservatory misses due date

Frost mars flowering of decades-old agave at Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens

  • A blossom doesn't quite open on the agave.
A blossom doesn't quite open on the agave. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
November 29, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

It is a tragedy of botanical proportions.

A giant agave basks in the warmth of Baltimore's Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, its spike of flower buds shooting through the roof and toward the sky.

The cactus, a resident of the conservatory for decades, is known as the Century Plant for its long life.

But a recent frost claimed its yellow petals before they could open, and now the agave will die without doing what it does just once during its time here on earth: bloom.

"I called the director of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden," said Kate Blom, the conservatory greenhouse manager. "I asked him if there was any hope that it would bloom. He said, 'I wouldn't think so.'"

Blom was stunned when she returned from vacation in September to see a flower spike shooting out of the center of the cactus, which is at least 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Normally, a flower spike will appear on a succulent in June, she said.

"It was growing a foot a day," she said of the 30-foot spike, which is about 6 inches in diameter. "You could literally stand here and watch it. It was our own beanstalk."

Staff members removed a panel of glass from the roof of the Desert Room to allow the spike to keep climbing. And they waited, cameras at the ready, for the enormous plume of pale yellow flowers that were certain to pop open at any moment.

It didn't happen.

And a cold Sunday night appears to have dashed any hope that it will.

"Suddenly, it has turned into a Charlie Brown Christmas tree," said Blom, looking up at the shriveled buds.

The Agave americana, a variety called "Marginata" for the yellow edges on its green leaves, will decline and die over the next few weeks, Blom predicted. The once-in-a-lifetime plume of flowers takes all the plant's energy.

However, a secondary and smaller spike of flowers with a few buds on it remains inside the glass roof of the conservatory. Staff will cut back the large, wilting flower spike and replace the missing pane of glass in hopes that those buds in the smaller spike will warm and open and produce seed for an offspring.

That's because the agave has not produced any "pups," baby versions of itself that spring up under its sprawling limbs and carry on after the parent plant dies.

"No babies," said Blom.

There is no record of the arrival of this agave at the conservatory in Druid Hill Park.

"Somebody probably donated it when it got too big for their house," Blom speculated. That happened, she said, 30, 40 or maybe 50 years ago. No one knows how old agaves are because they generally live longer than the people around them.

In 2004, as part of a conservatory renovation, this plant, still in a huge pot, was rolled to its present location in the back of the cactus room and transplanted in what Blom described as an enormous — and prickly — operation.

"We put it in the ground and broke the pot with sledgehammers," she said. "Since then, it has probably quadrupled in size."

When it dies, it will leave a giant hole — in the conservatory and in the hearts of staff members who have been waiting for months for its final bloom.

For her part, Blom is sanguine.

"The Pollyanna in me says, 'Oh my. A whole new landscaping opportunity.'"

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