The Matthaei Botanical Garden is preparing to take the roof off of their conservatory to accommodate a twenty-foot-tall agave that will soon bloom for the first time in 80 years.
The American Agave — the main ingredient in mezcal, a drink that’s similar to tequila — is expected to grow five more feet over the next two months.
While most agaves bloom within the first 20 years of life, this particular agave has shown no sign of blooming in the past eight decades.
Mike Palmer, manager of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, said he still does not know why the agave has begun blooming now after so many decades or how the plant’s environment cued sprout such a tall stalk.
“I think within the next 10 to 14 days, the flower will hit the glass,” Palmer said. “At that point, we will take the glass off the roof of the conservatory and let it go through the roof. It looks like an asparagus spear on steroids, and it could grow up to five more feet.”
As the agave nears twenty feet, it will begin sending out out small branches from its side. From these small branches, the agave will flower, likely within the next few months. Small identical clones of the agave plant will also begin to grow from the stalk, called pups. These pups will then fall off, hit the ground and root themselves, forming identical agaves.
American Agave is a monocarpic species — once it blooms and its pups find the ground, this 80-year-old agave will die. It will be cut down and the glass roof will be replaced for winter. However, Palmer is optimistic that its pups and seeds will become new agave and thrive in the conservatory.
Though agaves have various uses, production of mezcal using agave extract has been increasing in the United States. Commonly found in Mexico and other generally dry, mild climates, the American Agave can be found in nature with stalks towering over 30 feet tall.
The University’s agave arrived in Ann Arbor in 1934. Alfred Whiting, a graduate student, brought the young agave from Mexico to the University’s botanical gardens. Since it’s arrival, the sprout has grown to be more than 15 feet tall.
The agave ranks in the top 10 percent of the oldest plants housed at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
Students interested in seeing the agave should visit the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory, which is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. over the summer and has free admission.