My towering agave plant is in full bloom – but it’s a bittersweet bonanza | Adrian Chiles

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My towering agave plant is in full bloom – but it’s a bittersweet bonanza

Adrian Chiles

The century plant outside my flat grew a monstrous stalk this summer. I have since learned this means its days are numbered – which has painted it in a whole new light

Adrian Chiles and a magnificent century plant

Last modified on Wed 15 Sep 2021 13.41 EDT

There is a great big plant outside the flats where I live that looks bewildered to find itself there. In Mexico, yes; west London, not so much. Its leaves look like the tongues of giant lizards, with prickly edges and nasty spikes at the tips. This summer, out of their ferocious midst, a thick stalk emerged suddenly and grew, almost overnight, to an astonishing height. There was a certain exhibitionist arrogance about this new weapon in its armoury. I admired it, but feared it a little, too.

Enquiries revealed the plant to be Agave americana. This species is commonly known as the century plant, although typically it lives for between 10 and 30 years. I read with great sadness that it sends up the magnificent, branched stalk only the once, as it comes to the end of its life.

This changed everything between me and that stalk. Where once I cowered beneath it, I now look up with an admiration grounded in sorrow, rather than fear. But what better way to rage against the dying of the light than throwing up a wondrous flowering phallus towards the sky?

I can’t bear to think about how the end will come. If it were just to droop, that would be a sorry, humiliating way of bowing out. Better that, I suppose, and less dangerous, than for it to snap suddenly, possibly taking me or one of my fellow residents with it. Before that time comes, I feel as if my neighbours and I should gather – cautiously – beneath, perhaps even joining hands as we mourn its imminent passing. If I could, I would get it transported back to Mexico to die in peace, in the home of its ancestors.

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