Once Upon a Century

Once Upon a Century
by Rebekah Sykes

For over twenty-five years, the Agave, also called the Century Plant, has watched customers of Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC come and go. As water lilies, pitcher plants, and cacti, carefully grown and nurtured within the nursery, are chosen for new homes, the Agave has faithfully grown its roots outside the sales room. Neighboring the ponds of happy Koi and goldfish, the Agave has many friends as the waterfalls at the nursery serenade the abundance all around. Growth has been slow and steady for the once potted gallon-sized plant Joe Granato purchased from a garden center in Charleston, SC.

Growing intertwined among the thick, strong arms of the evergreen Agave, stories weave in and out. There have been birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals all remembered within its skin as life passes through the doors of the nursery bringing news, calls, and visits. Through 26 cycles of spring, summer, fall, and winter, the Agave has grown through drought and plenty proudly wearing the hurtful nicks, life scars, and happy tender growth. Just as Joe’s children Alyssa and Joey have grown up running around the nursery, the Agave has faithfully grown from that potted six-inch gem to now standing six feet tall. However, within the last six weeks, its stalk of flowers surprisingly burst 30 feet into the air. Waiting over 25 years for this spectacular moment, the Agave has exploded into a massive celebration of yellow flowers commemorating 25 years in business, of life, and of so much more.

Aptly named the Century Plant, this Agave captured my interest and privileged a meeting with Joe Granato, owner of Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC. Always happy to share about one of his babies, Joe tells the rest of the story, “Century Plant is a common name, a catch-all term for all Agaves, not specific to that species. Legend has it that they grow for 100 years, flower, and die; mine is 26 years old and flowering. Different species take different lengths of time to bloom.” In regards to other Agaves growing at the nursery, Joe tells, “I’ve got some varieties older than 26 years that haven’t flowered yet; my blue Agave will probably take 40 years to flower.”

Native to Mexico, Agaves like full sun and dry conditions; they don’t like to be wet. Joe explains, “Certain varieties do well through all seasons; however some Agaves won’t survive the winter of our native Sandhills. The ones that do survive here come from the higher elevations in the mountains of Mexico where it gets colder. The desert gets pretty cold at night when the sun goes down because there isn’t any moisture in the desert to retain the heat. When it gets dark; it gets cold. Conversely, rainforests are always warm and humid because the moisture holds the heat.”

Joe continues, “Bats pollinate the Agave in Mexico; however, since the Agave is not native to NC, we don’t have the right kind of bats to pollinate it. Our bats are insect-eating bats; bats in the desert are fruit-eating bats. For instance, the Saguaro cactus living in the deserts of Mexico are pollinated by bats at night. That’s why the flowers bloom at night. The bats drink the nectar from the flowers and eat the fruit; in the process, the bats transfer the pollen from one flower to the next.” Joe expects butterflies and bees will pollinate his Agave’s flowers.
With the flower stem reaching 30 feet into the air, thousands of flowers bloom. The stem holding the beauty stands eight inches in diameter. Joe expects the flowers to last a week and a half, maybe two weeks. Once the Agave blooms, sadly, the entire plant dies! Growing a friendship for more than twenty-five years, the Agave will soon say, “Goodbye.” Joe comforts, “At some point, you have to move on.” Then he smiles, “It’s got “pups” (baby plants) around its base that will grow into new life.”
Over the years, Joe has collected several “pups” from the mother plant. Overseeing their care, Joe informs, “Full sun, half-rate fertilizer. I fertilize them once a year with time-released fertilizer, and if the bag says you need two tablespoons on your plant, then only use one. Nutrients aren’t plentiful in the desert, so they’ve adapted to utilizing less. Agave like to be watered during the hot seasons on a semi-regular basis, but they like to be dry in the winter. Plants from the desert dehydrate themselves in the winter because there is usually no rain. Since they push all the water out of their system, cacti wilt in the wintertime. With less water inside, they can endure colder temperatures. The reason plants die in the freezing temperatures of winter is because the water inside the cells freezes and creates crystals which puncture the cell walls. When there is no Turgor pressure, the cells wilt, and the plant dies.”

In caring for cacti locally, Joe explains the importance of keeping them dry. “Cacti don’t have the same mechanism to fight off fungus as other plants living in more humid areas; therefore moisture in the winter, when they’re not actively growing can create rot. The best way to keep them dry is to plant them elevated, mounded up in sandy soil. When it rains, the moisture drains from the soil which prevents the cactus from rotting.”

Locally we do not have any native Agaves. All Agaves are native to the West Coast, typically west of the Rocky Mountains, down into Central America, and into the northern parts of South America where it’s dry. However, we do have some native prickly pear living amongst the pine straw of the Sandhills. Joe remarks, “It’s interesting because in the summer, they’re all puffed up and happy with yellow flowers, but in the winter, they’re all shriveled up and look like they’re dead. Just leave them alone, and once spring brings warmth, they revive.” Joe continues, “We’ve got an Opuntia cactus that completely wilts in the winter with its arms hanging down. However, when spring comes, the arms stand right back up; it’s close to six feet tall now.”

From our established local resource of Star Ridge Aquatics, Joe highlights other options for interested locals. “The NC Zoo in Asheboro features a Sonoran Desert exhibit with an expansive outdoor area showcasing hearty cactus and Agave. Also, the desert section in the Sandhills Community College gardens presents an opportunity for locals to observe plants that don’t normally grow around here.” A 1993 graduate of the SCC horticultural program, Joe has donated several plants to the program in hopes of encouraging future growth and awareness.

From hardy bananas to hardy palm trees, aquatic plants, and fish, Star Ridge offers unique varieties of all things growing. From the “pups” of the Agave to the different varieties of water lilies, Joe informs, “I enjoy unusual plants, and ironically Agaves are included in the lily family along with the Easter Lily and Artichoke.”
If you like the desert, Southwest look, Star Ridge grows many hardy cactus, hardy Agaves, and hardy yuccas for planting in your yard. If you have a water garden, they offer numerous aquatic plants. Joe encourages, “If your yard is dry, come see us. If it’s wet, come see us!”
In regards to the Century Plant in bloom, Joe summarizes, “Some things are worth the wait. You can see something every day for 25 years, but one day, it just surprises you!” As for the babies around the mother, Joe agrees to leave them. “Sure. Maybe in another 25 years, they will be ready to bloom, but will you be around for another story?” We figure our ages plus 25 and laugh. From his big green Agave, the biggest at the nursery, he tells of the second biggest, the Dasylirion. Onto another plant, another chapter, another story.
As you record your once upon a lifetime story and measure old growth while seeking new, go see Joe and family at Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC.

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