Agave americana – the Inaccurate Timekeepers

Of all the plants on the island, the ones that get the most attention are the agaves.  Agave americana covers the southern slope of the island and greets visitors as they approach the island on the ferry. Originally planted by the military in the 1920s, these natives to the southwest and Mexico are excellent in coastal conditions and stabilizing slopes. They also have a sharp needle at the tip of each leaf that perhaps was useful in keeping inmates out of areas.


Agave flowers spikes with the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With the common name of the century plant, Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to the Warden in 1934, called the agaves the ‘inaccurate timekeepers’.  The basal rosette of leaves takes between 10 and 15 years to send up a flower; but for impatient gardeners, it would seem like a century.


The flower spike is quite dramatic, and often visitors mistake it for a tree. The spike can rise up to 26 feet in height (8 meters). Once the plant has flowered, it will then die; but in the meantime, the plant has sent out new adventitious shoots (pups), that will take the place of the parent plant.


While this is not the plant that tequila comes from, the plant does have many other uses. The fibers in the leaves were used by natives to make rope, sew, or to make rough cloth. The seed pods are edible and a sweet liquid can be harvested from the flower stalks before the flowers open.


This past summer, the stand of agaves by the Warden’s house had one plant that was ready to flower. Being a gardener on the island certainly has its perks, and I was able to watch the flower spike reach for the sky and take a photo every week to see how fast it would grow. I first noticed the spike rising above the leaves mid-May and finished reaching the full height with the seed pods expanded mid-September.


Weekly progress of the flower spike growing. Photos by Shelagh Fritz


The flower spike has now taken its place alongside the other centuries. Now that the flowering is finished, I can start watching the new pups grow.



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