WMU’s century plant reaches new heights

Contact: Meghan Behymer

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—What's a plant to do when it’s about to grow through the greenhouse roof?

If you ask Western Michigan University's Agave americana plant, it will give you the answer: Make greenhouse specialist Chris Jackson figure out a way to move the roof out of its way.

Alice, an Agave americana at Western Michigan University, stands at a towering 9 feet high in this picture captured on Feb. 16. As of Feb. 22, Alice has reached 13-foot-6-inches in height and is just barely above the greenhouse roof entering into a protective tube. (Photo by Michael Lanka)

That is the challenge Jackson now faces as the at least 50-year-old Agave, also called the “century plant,” grows a remarkable 3.5 inches daily in preparation of its bloom—the sign it has reached the end of its life cycle. With its towering spike heading toward the very top of the Finch Greenhouse, Jackson recognized that he would need to devise a creative plan if the plant, which caretakers named Alice, is to survive and ultimately bloom. 

“The last Agave that bloomed at Western was 17 years ago, but it bloomed right as it reached the top of the greenhouse,” says Jackson. “So this is a really unique situation we are in. I don’t know of anyone who has been challenged with the plant going through the top of the greenhouse at this northern latitude in February.”

Given such unique circumstances, Jackson contacted a person he believed may be able to offer insight: Ray Jorgensen, a floriculturist who had spent two decades tending to a 60-year-old Agave at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago before it grew too large for its greenhouse enclosure, ultimately towering to a height of 38 feet. Coincidentally, this Agave, which was affectionately known as Maya, had a diameter that was roughly equivalent to the one currently flourishing at Western.

“We talked back and forth and we both agreed that the best bet is to take the greenhouse glass out and roll the dice with the weather because otherwise we’re guaranteeing Alice won’t finish its life cycle,” Jackson says. 

To give the century plant its best shot at survival, Jackson partnered with Mike Davenport of WMU Facilities Management to carefully remove a glass panel in anticipation of the plant's growth beyond the roof. Jackson then designed a protective system that utilizes tubes, heat tape and thermostats to ensure the spike stays warm in the cold February weather. As of Feb. 22, Alice stood an impressive 13-foot-6-inches in height, placing it just at the roof of the greenhouse and beginning to enter the protective tube that extends another 6 feet above the roof. 

Until Alice starts showing panicles, or flower branches, it’s hard to predict just how tall the plant will get or when it will bloom, though Jackson notes that Agaves typically last about two months from start to finish. As such, he will be consistently observing and fine-tuning his care of Alice to encourage the plant to flourish into the remarkable sculptural form for which it is known, adorned with greenish-yellow flowers on its numerous branches.

“Hopefully it’s going to do its whole thing and be a great inflorescence with lots of flowers because it really is such a cool thing to witness, but it is kind of bittersweet knowing that no matter what we will soon be saying goodbye,” says Jackson.

In the event that Alice is able to bloom despite the wintry conditions, Jackson will face yet another challenge: Pollinating the Agave flowers to try and produce seeds. Typically pollinated by bats, which are currently in hibernation or have migrated, he will have to climb onto the roof of the Finch Greenhouse and manually transfer pollen using a paintbrush.

With so much uncertainty around whether Western’s Agave will be able to complete its life cycle, Jackson encourages anyone who wants to see Alice in person to visit the Finch Greenhouse Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.