The tall and short of it in Beaver Dam

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The Rothberger’s Century Plant blooms began as large disks, some almost the size of dinner plates and grew peripherally along the stalk from the middle to the top. When the plant bloomed large clusters of bright yellow flowers appeared giving the plant a very sculptural and slightly alien look. The plant from start to finish took about six weeks to bloom and lasted for approximately a month before the entire plant died. Photo by Teri Nehrenz

Dori and Murray Rothenberger have lived in Beaver Dam for many years but in their present home for only three. They live in the new housing development in Beaver Dam where they have a beautifully landscaped yard all year long but this summer nature showed its tall glory for a short time.

In the front yard of the Rothenberger’s home lived a Century Plant, a member of the Agave family. The plant, which had been there from the time they moved in, finally reached maturity and bloomed in the early part of June. The couple said they had seen many Century Plants around the area but none like the one that bloomed in their yard. They enjoyed watching the plant bloom for six weeks, the tall glory of the thick stalk full of vibrant yellow flowers for about a month and then, the very short-lived nature show ended when the entire plant died; but that is the natural life cycle of the Century Plant.

The couple said the plant began sprouting the stalk in May. The growth of the stalk at the start was fast, growing almost a foot overnight at the start then slowing to just a couple of inches a day. The blooms began as large disks, some almost the size of dinner plates and grew peripherally along the stalk from the middle to the top. When the plant bloomed large clusters of bright yellow flowers appeared giving the plant a very sculptural and slightly alien look.

Usually the Century Plants they have seen have had one large stalk with a single cluster of flowers at the very top, normally reaching heights of 15-40 feet. Unless you cut the plant down, most people wouldn’t have the chance to get a close view of the flower clusters they produce. This plant they said is like none they’ve seen before. The cluster began about chest height and traveled, in groups, all the way to the top. The stalk also took on a few bends along the way making it lean worse than the Tower of Pisa but giving everyone rare opportunity for inspecting, by sight and olfactory sense, the yellow buds.

When the Rothberger’s Century Plant bloomed large clusters of bright yellow flowers appeared giving the plant a very sculptural and slightly alien look. Some of the clusters were the size of dinner plates. Photo by Teri Nehrenz

Century Plants are native to Mexico, are used as an ornamental plant all over the world and have become naturalized, growing wild in many places. This plant does not, however, live for a century or take 100 years to bloom.

Most species produce underground shoots from which they produce several more plants. These shoots will then almost always sprout and grow to maturity, and then repeat the life cycle. The plant actually takes only about 15 years to flower.

Botanists have also come up with hybrids to make several different varieties of the plant that look and behave differently, hence the alien looking plant that appeared in the Rothberger’s front yard, but the essential life cycle remains the same.

In Mexico, the stalks are cut to harvest the sap called Aguamiel, or “honey water.” The sap is used in the production of a drink called pulque. Pulque cannot be stored and the taste can be altered very easily; it is considered a regional specialty.

Recently the century plant has come to the public’s attention because of agave syrup, sometimes called agave nectar. Other parts of the plant, including the fibrous leaves and stalks, are used in the production of rope and clothing but these uses have become rare as synthetic alternatives have become available. It is said that the leaves of the century plant can be baked as a food source but is considered an acquired taste by many who have tried it; and that’s the tall glory and short life of the Rothberger’s Century Plant.

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