“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.” - Earnest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Pictured above is my century plant, aka agave parryi, on October 11 when I first noticed the flower stalk. I continued to take pictures of the plant a couple of times each week to document the speed of its bloom. I intended eventually to post a sort of time-lapse story of its glorious final days.
The large agave pictured above on October 17 had grown all of its life beneath the canopy of a pine tree. We removed the pine this summer because it succumbed to prolonged drought and insects, and finally a branch collapsed blocking the driveway. The round light shape at the base of the agave is the stump of the pine tree. I had dropped a baby agave there about 20 ago when we removed these sharp pointy succulents from our front sidewalk in an effort to make a trip to the front door more welcoming and less life-threatening. Once subjected to the full sun, the green leaves of the agave became a bit yellow with sunburn. Perhaps encouraged by the sunshine, the plant, decided it was time to bloom and die – in that order.
Here (above) it is on October 22. The electrical wires in the background are perfectly located to measure the breakneck rate of growth. This was about as far as we got before nature intervened. The weather turned cold. A century plant is said to bloom in late spring or early summer. This summer, San Diego had seriously messed up weather and it didn’t get really summer-hot until late September. (And by messed up weather, I mean we had mild spring temperatures from March through September, so you can see we had some rough days in paradise. In the Veggie Garden for example, our eggplants are just now producing fruit, and many of our indeterminate tomatoes are just now ripening on their scruffy vines.)
The agave couldn’t take the cold. Here it is on November 1, where it has lost several feet of growth. The plant is at the bottom of a long steep slope from the tip of our roof down through the yard into the street - that slope is perfect for directing the coldest nighttime air into the young shoot. It was just one night of just barely freezing temperatures locally: our thermometer said it was 35F. But the growth was stopped in its tracks and then the tip simply fell off before I could get a picture of its young frost-blackened corpse.
I know the whole cycle of life thing gardeners are supposed to meditate on watching seasonal changes in your garden. I know that nature is often red in tooth and claw, and now I know nature is sometimes also black in stem and bud.
But I was really looking forward to enjoying the “once in a century” flowering. Century plants bloom once in their lives. The size and energy of the bloom exhausts and kills the parent plant. When in full bloom, these are impressive plants. The flower stem is often taller than a tree, and its shape reminds me of a carefully manicured Japanese black pine pruned into a giant bonsai. Then the flowers dry and turn brown and the stalk eventually dries out and falls over, and the flowers germinate into dutiful baby century plants surrounding the grave of their parent.
That will never happen in my front yard, at least not for another century. So young, so fresh, so much promise. So dead. I didn’t expect to be this sad this fall.