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Wednesday, June 20, 2007 01:14 pm

Our horticulture miracle

Fairgrounds agave sports a 25-foot shoot

Untitled Document Most of us enjoy a surprise, and for gardeners a horticultural miracle is especially exciting. Last week eight inmates moved a giant agave plant — 6 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and bearing a 25-foot flower stalk — to the University of Illinois master gardeners’ demonstration gardens. The container-grown plant, which is getting ready to bloom, is located in front of the University of Illinois Extension building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Agave is the genus of a plant commonly called agave, century plant, or American aloe. Worldwide, there are about 200 Agave species. They occur naturally in arid areas of Mexico, central and tropical South America, and the southern and western United States, but the plant has also escaped cultivation and become established in Mediterranean regions of Africa and Europe. Most agaves consist of a rosette of thick, rigid leaves, often with teeth along their margins and usually a sharp spine at the end of each leaf. The leaves tend to be blue-green to gray-green. The massive fleshy evergreen leaves store the nourishment needed by the plant to generate the energy to flower. Agave is a desert plant and, once established, is quite drought-tolerant. For this reason, it is a popular landscape plant in the southern and western United States, where it is grown in rock gardens or as a specimen plant. Its size guarantees that it will dominate the landscape in most any garden. Be sure to not grow this plant near walkways and areas where children play.
Most species of Agave are monocarpic, meaning that they flower once and then die. (After flowering, the mother plant will produce offsets called pups.) The flowers, which contain both male and female parts, are yellow or white and emerge from the terminal ends of horizontal branches. The name “century plant” refers to the time it takes for the agave to flower — but although it does take a long time for the plant to bloom, it doesn’t actually take a century. The number of years it takes a plant to flower depends on the vigor of the plant and the soil and climate conditions. In warm areas, it may take just 10 years for the plant to bloom. It is believed that the specimen in the container at the fairgrounds is an Agave americana, the most commonly grown agave. This plant’s leaves may grow as long as 6 feet and as wide as 10 inches. Although guards and inmates at the Logan Correctional facility have cared for this agave for the past 20 years, the plant’s exact age and origin are unknown. Each summer the plant is brought outdoors, and, because it will not survive the Illinois cold, each fall it is brought indoors and allowed to go dormant over the winter.
In March, corrections officer Jerry Morgan noticed an asparaguslike stalk coming up from the middle of the plant, and the stalk almost punched its way through the ceiling before temperatures were warm enough for the plant to be taken outdoors. Since then the shoot has grown at least 25 feet tall. (The agave’s stalk can grow as high as 30 feet.) As you might guess, the agave poses maintenance problems, but they’re not just caused by the sharp, spiny leaves: The plant’s sap can cause an acute rash consisting of redness and blisters. (Dried parts of the agave can be handled safely, however.) Stop by and see this horticultural miracle.
For more information about the University of Illinois Extension’s Sangamon-Menard unit, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.
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