Memento Mori IV – Or, Agave Americana

“Has that always been there?”

My sister was pointing at a large ornamental desert plant. She and I were several laps into an evening walk-and-talk around her neighborhood, and we were now stopped beneath the sparse Las Vegas stars regarding the plant in question with deepening curiosity.

The plant had always been there, beside the road, intentionally planted among the pink landscaping rocks. Both aloe-like and cactus-like, it was four-and-a-half feet tall, six feet across, and difficult to miss, with its crown of thick, spined leaves. But neither my sister nor I recognized the smooth, thick stalk emerging from the centermost spines.

“I didn’t see it yesterday,” I finally said. “I’ve never noticed it before.”

“How, though?” my sister protested. “It must’ve been there for a while, at least. It’s so big!”

And it was. On this night, the stalk was about four inches in diameter and protruded eight inches beyond the tips of the center leaves.

“I don’t know,” I answered, gesturing aimlessly. “Maybe—? I don’t know.”

Perhaps twelve hours later, we passed the plant in the daylight while headed towards the park. The massive stalk looked somehow taller than it had in the darkness. All the more impossible for it to have ever gone unnoticed. It looked vaguely—and incongruously—like a comically gigantic asparagus spear.

Close-up of the stalk, taken a week after this story begins.

After lunch, as my niece and nephew napped, my sister consulted Google.

Our mysterious plant was known scientifically as Agave americana, which places it in the same family as asparagus (explaining the stalk’s appearance) and in the same genus as plants used to make both agave-based sweeteners and tequila. (In parts of Mexico, A. americana is used for making regional cousins of tequila.) It’s a popular landscaping go-to, especially in hot, dry regions. And it is commonly referred to as a “century plant.”

“Century plant” is a romantic misnomer. A. americana doesn’t live for one hundred years. The oldest known individual was an 80-year-old specimen kept in a greenhouse at the University of Michigan’s botanical gardens, but in the wild—and even in regular landscaping—the upper limit is closer to 30.

A. americana is called the century plant because it flowers only once in its lifetime. After years of patient growth, when it senses the conditions are ideal for new life, it shifts all its energy into growing a soaring, branched stalk full of flowers. The flowers, hopefully, are pollinated by wind and bats and birds and bees. At last, the stalk’s considerable weight, combined with the branches’ air resistance, tips the plant and tears it from the ground. The century plant dies. Seeds are scattered on impact. New life is born.

The century plant in question, with a five-year-old (and a two-story house) for scale. This was taken several weeks after the story began. Photo taken by my sister.

“No wonder we didn’t notice the stalk before,” my sister observed. “Apparently the stalk can grow up to six inches in a day.”

I nodded wistfully, struck by the vivid juxtaposition of life and death. Far from slowing down with age, the century plant approached death at a dramatic sprint.

There this specimen stood, where it had been planted years before. It had faded into the background, just another part of the landscaping. And suddenly it was taking center stage, demanding neighborhood attention. I was simultaneously awe-struck and mournful.

The sensation reminded me of a poem I’ve loved since childhood: a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons, entitled “The Silver Swan.”

The silver swan, who living had no note,

When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;

Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,

Thus sang her first and last, and sung no more:

“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;

More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

I came into this world with the soul of a nineteenth-century Gothic heroine. The notion of heart-rending beauty coexisting with death, and necessarily reliant upon it, captured my morbid little passions in a way only esoteric mysteries can. “The Silver Swan” was one of the earliest poems I ever memorized.

The poem links long silence and the final conveyance of experience with wisdom, and mindless chatter with foolishness. This is, of course, a romantic notion—indeed, a Romantic notion, in the most Wordsworthian, Keatsian, Coleridgean possible way. No matter that the madrigal itself predates the Romantics by nearly 200 years. Inspiration strikes at the moment of death, and the long preceding silence sanctifies the aching beauty. Inevitable tragedy sanctifies the beauty. Viewers encounter the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”—which is, of course, the way Wordsworth defined poetry.

The century plant as viewed from below. Branches have begun to emerge from the stalk. Photo taken by my sister.

Now. I have complicated feelings about the Romantics. And my take on “The Silver Swan” has taken on nuance as well.

Lovely as the notion of inspired “spontaneous overflow” is—what artist looks forward to editing?—it’s as unrealistic as the notion of producing an unrehearsed masterwork at life’s end. As unrealistic as a stark line drawn between utter silence and endless chatter.

“Swan songs” themselves are myth. Even the relatively-quiet mute swan communicates audibly throughout its life, and no swan species is known to sing upon death’s approach.

The concepts are entirely human: the romantic and the gothic and the madrigalic.

The century plant putting forth branches with flower buds beginning to form. The stalk has grown well over the nearby house’s roof. This was taken a month and a half after we first noticed the stalk. Photo taken by my sister.

But I am, as it turns out, wholly human.

I liked the idea of monitoring the century plant’s final spectacular. Each day the stalk grew taller. Branches began emerging. My sister wrapped A. americana‘s journey into teaching her children about plant life—root systems and leaves and flowers and the animals that rely upon them. We took photos of the century plant’s progress. Both my sister and I hoped to collect seeds in the end.

My human brain turned the phenomenon over and over, searching for metaphors. Something like a phoenix. Something like a swan. Something self-sacrificial. Something purely natural—as natural as exhaling, as natural as sunset, as natural as winter.

A. americana did not resist death as my human brain did. It did not need meaning or philosophy. It did not define tragedy or nobility. It simply existed. It stretched through time’s ebbing like a cat stretching on a sunny morning.

How could I employ such grace?

Understanding that I am not a landscaped desert plant, what was there to learn? Silly me. I demand so much from the ever-churning universe sometimes.

Soon after flower buds appeared on the stalk’s branches, but before they bloomed, my sister texted me, distraught. In the previous night’s windstorm, the century plant had torn loose from the soil and fallen. Just like that, A. americana‘s journey was over.

A. americana, fallen before the flower buds could open and be fertilized. Photo taken by my sister.

At first we thought a neighbor might have complained to the neighborhood homeowner’s association—after all, such a heavy and precarious stalk was a potential hazard to cars and pedestrians and pets. But upon examining the surprisingly-small exposed root ball, we realized this century plant could never have sustained its full cycle. The original landscaping wouldn’t allow for it. No room had been left in the beginning for the root system to spread. Once the stalk breached the windbreak of the nearest house, the blustery desert weather became the enemy.

Close-up of the flower buds beginning to form, with the landscaping rocks in the background. Photo taken by my sister.

“Disappointed” puts it mildly. How tragic, for a plant to put forth so much energy, knowing it would eventually die from the effort, only to topple too soon for the feat to make the intended difference!

My sister and I examined the fallen behemoth, now that we could reach the stalk without risking a stumble into the agave’s spiny crown. The trunk was solid, woody. The branches had a flexible look, but they too were firm and unyielding to the touch. So much work. So much effort.

Over the next few days, the flower buds slowly rotated skyward again, still struggling for success. They grew somewhat fuller. But soon enough, landscapers arrived with saws to dismantle the lost giant, and to fill in the hole it had left. A. americana was gone.

And so my human brain finally found a lesson: do not be lulled by romance into a belief in deathbed genius. Do not procrastinate art. Do not assume any length of time remains.

Don’t delay. Leave something finished.

Have you ever seen a century agave in its final months? Or encountered something similar in the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom? What was it like? Tell us in the comments!

Note to my regular readers: I apologize for not posting anything last week. Life got away from me and I had to let something fall to the side. I’m looking forward to creating more, so please stay tuned!

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