MORONGO BASIN — The century plant is a legend among locals. James W. Cornett, biological consultant and author of books and scholarly articles on the desert, breaks down some of the myths and facts about this sentry of the landscape.
1. It might not even be a century plant
That spiny rosette of thick leaves. That stalk towering up to the sky. Those are the hallmarks of the century plant … but also of pretty much any agave. Agaves are members of the same family as yucca plants and the asparagus you pick up in the grocery store (Asparagaceae). There are all kinds of species of agave — like blue agave, which is what you make tequila out of; Utah agave, which is the only one native to the Mojave desert; and Agave americana, also known as the century plant.
Since most of these agaves look roughly the same and take a long time to bloom, all of them often are referred to as century plants.
2. It definitely won’t live 100 years
“There are quite a few agave species, several dozen at least, and I know of none that takes 100 years before they flower. Not even close,” Cornett said.
The species that’s called century plant, Agave americana, generally lives 10-30 years, according to several agricultural and landscaping sources.
3. It’s not … great at sex
One legend about the century plant is absolutely true: It blooms once, then dies. Flowers are how plants sexually reproduce, and the century plant puts its all into one big bang — a tall stalk with clusters of flowers way up in the air to attract pollinators and make seeds. But that’s not how most century plant babies are made. “It’s very rare in most environments for agave seeds to germinate and produce a whole new agave plant,” Cornett said.
“In deserts the world over, seed success is very, very, very low for all perennials,” he added.
“A seed must germinate and establish with only a tiny packet of nutrients. Successful establishment can only occur under the most favorable conditions, that once every 20 years or so when rainfall is above average for several consecutive months. Even then, its survival is tenuous.”
4. But it is fantastic at cloning!
It may only flower once and then die, but agaves can reproduce asexually several times. They send out underground stems called rhizomes that poke aboveground and turn into “pups” — little agaves that can become independent plants.
“Because rhizomes grow from the parent plant, they have access to much more energy and nutrients than does a seed,” Cornett said. “A rhizome can establish under average or ordinary conditions. So rhizome sprouts are often successful in establishing, seeds rarely so.”
5. Keep shooting your shot, agave!
Even though it’s rare for agaves to reproduce sexually, from a pollinated seed, they’ve got to keep trying for the good of the species.
“Sexual reproduction is so important in terms of mixing up the genes that it’s worth the effort even if it happens one in a million times,” Cornett said.
If all agaves are simply clones of their parents, the species won’t adapt to a changing environment — like the one we’ve got right now with climate change.
“Sexual reproduction is a much better way of adapting,” Cornett said.
“If it’s only successful once in 100 years, that helps that species adapt to changing environmental conditions.”
6. You can save its life by snipping it
You can save your century plant by cutting off its stalk when it starts to grow — the sooner, the better. Since the plant uses all its energy reserves to put out a stalk, if you stop that process in time, the plant can continue to live.
“Horticulturists are aware that if you cut the flower stalk off when it first appears, the leaves will continue to live for many years after that, but they don’t produce a new flower stalk,” Cornett said.
He saved an agave in his own yard that way. “It stayed alive five or six more years, but I will confess it never looked the same,” he said.
7. It got men into the kitchen, kind of
Native Americans would roast and eat the agave heart, which is sweeter and more tender — kind of like the center of a giant artichoke.
And because of its size, it got men into the act.
“It was one of the few instances where men prepared a plant food,” said Cornett, whose published books include “Indian Uses of Desert Plants.”
“In most cases, women gathered over 90 percent of the food in a tribe and they prepared most of it. But the agaves are bigger and required the much-vaunted strength of men sometimes.”
The pith of a large agave would be around 15-20 pounds, so the harvesting and roasting could be part of a celebration where neighbors would be invited for the big feast.
8. Bats are its best friends
Many agave species favor pollination by bats and some are even said to require bats to pollinate their flowers.
“The bats that pollinate agaves are going there for the nectar. All the agaves produce quite a bit of nectar,” Cornett said.
The survival of agaves and bats are so intertwined that tequila makers have become bat protectors to save their plants. The Sierra Club reported in 2018 that tequila producers have been convinced to let their agaves fully flower so bats could collect their pollen. Most farmers were harvesting the plants before the stalk appeared. It was the same old problem of sexual reproduction for the agave: Without being allowed to flower and get pollinated, the agaves were relying entirely on cloning to reproduce. Farmers’ entire crops were genetically identical, and that meant they were identically susceptible to disease or pests.
Around half of all bat species in the U.S. are threatened or endangered, so many conservationists have agave-planting campaigns. Bat Conservation International hopes to plant almost a million agave plants from Arizona and New Mexico to central Mexico to help migratory bats.
9. … And it’s the rat’s best friend
“Wood rats are the most notorious agave eaters,” Cornett said.
Rodents of all sorts are good at eating agave leaves because they are fibrous and chewy — perfect for their sharp incisors.
“The leaves are succulent and have moisture,” he explained. “In some areas of Baja, the wood rats depend entirely on agaves for their moisture.”
Ground squirrels, rabbits and mice can also severely damage agaves along with yuccas and cacti, according to the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture.
10. It’s inebriating in so many ways
Agave plants are known for producing tequila, but there’s so much more alcohol to be had from their sugary hearts. The sweet sap that collects in an agave is called aguamiel, or honey water, and there are .
Tequila traditionalists make their alcohol from the centers of blue agaves.
By contrast, mezcal can be made from any of the agaves native to Mexico. It’s smokier because the agave heart is roasted in production. Aficionados prefer to know what kind of agave made their mezcal just like oenophiles prefer certain grapes.
And it’s mezcal, by the way, that sometimes has a worm at the bottom. (And it’s not a worm, it’s a moth larva.)
Pulque is a pre-Columbian alcohol that was having a bit of a moment in recent years. Milky and sour, it’s made from the sap of agave plants called maguey and has been drunk for more than a thousand years.
And that’s only the start. There are raicilla, cocuy and bacanora, which is roasted in volcanic pits. Many predate the arrival of conquistadors and were important parts of ancient Mesoamerica. So while a single century plant won’t live for 100 years, the species has roots that go back much further.