The well-known century plant is misnamed. Here’s why.
The common belief is that this plant takes a hundred years to bloom, then dies. In fact, it actually takes a lot less time to bloom, and doesn’t always die at that point. True enough, it does take a long time to flower. The flower stalk, which arises from the basal rosette of leaves, takes five to ten years to appear. This can rise to 15 feet in height.
Century plants prefer full sun, but can take some partial shade. They like a well drained, sandy soil. These adapt well to seaside areas, being salt tolerant. With regard to pests, there are virtually none to worry about.
The plants are well suited to landscape use in warmer climates. The lower growing kinds are used in rock gardens. All sizes are suitable for growing as specimen plants. Taller ones are also used for hedges. In addition, some species and cultivars are small enough for growing in containers.
The agaves can be propagated in several ways. The basal clump can be divided to produce several new plants. Seeds, when available, can be planted. In some cases, the flowers produce little bodies called bulbils, which can be used. Shoots arise at the base. These can be cut off and planted, preferably in pure sand. When roots develop, these can go into their permanent position in the garden.
There are several kinds of agaves. The largest is known as maguey and henequen. A smaller species is the sisal hemp, native of Yucatan. This one lacks marginal spines. It has long been the source of an excellent fiber. This plant has naturalized in some tropical areas where it has been introduced. There is also one called donkey agave. This species has smaller leaves with white along the margins. A single spine can be found at the tips of its
In Jamaica, the agave is called maypole because of the tall central flowering stalk.
One of the earliest references I have found to this plant was in the writings of an English explorer, Peter Martyr, who wrote and traveled in the 15th century in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico as well as elsewhere. He wrote, “They say that the first inhabitants lived contented with the roots of… maguey,” which is the name the early Aztecs use for the plant.
By 1586, various species of century plants had reached Italy and were reportedly grown in the gardens of that country.
The leaves of the century plants often have spines at the very tips. For that reason, these should not be planted near children’s play areas.
The individual flowers of the century plants are not terribly showy. Usually, they are reddish-green, and smallish in size.
The flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both sexes. Sometimes, but not always, the rosettes at the base will die after flowering.
The name agave comes from the Greek word agaros, meaning excellent, or admirable. This is in reference to the wide range of uses it has enjoyed among the original inhabitants of the New World.
The Aztecs made a papyrus-like paper material from the leaves. Native Americans of the southwestern U.S. and some of the Mexican Indians actually made a leaf extract, which they rolled into balls and then smoked like tobacco.
The Apaches, Pima, and Papagos roasted and the heart of the plant. Others roasted the young green shoots, which are sweet and tender. Probably the most famous product of all is pulque, a fermented wine made from the flower stalk. Liquid from the plant is the source of the famous maguey alcoholic drinks.
In Mexico, the plants have been used for various medicinal purposes. Liquid
pressed from the leaves is used to treat bruises. In Peru, the Aztecs pounded the leaves in water, and used the liquid in an enema to treat dysentery. They also used agave juice to treat wounds.