When your old plants start behaving weirdly

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Wendy and Geoffrey Hicks first noticed it in May. A plant that had lived benignly in a pot beside their pool in Cotati for more than 10 years suddenly started acting weird.

The activity was shocking because over the years it had changed little from the barrel-shaped, low-growing, cactuslike plant that Geoffrey brought home from his mother’s San Luis Obispo yard after she died a decade ago. But this spring, a stalk poked out of the middle of it and started growing. And growing. And growing. Every morning it was a few inches taller, like Jack’s magic beanstalk.

It was almost as if it was growing before their very eyes.

Wendy Hicks posted pictures on Facebook and dubbed it The Thing in the Backyard. And The Thing developed a following as it reached ever higher toward the sky. Friends began demanding status updates on The Thing. It developed other nicknames, some not mentionable.

“Sooo this plant in our back yard is doing this... if it starts yelling ‘Feed me, (Seymour)’ or one of the Corgis disappears we will know where to look!” Hicks first posted on her Facebook wall on May 2, quoting from the musical “The Little Shop of Horrors” about a carnivorous plant.

Hicks, a travel agent, went to Mexico for four days and pleaded with the plant not to do “anything too dramatic” while she was gone.

But by the time she returned on May 11, it had doubled in height. By the end of the month it had reached 12 feet tall, eventually topping off at 13 feet tall.

She began researching and determined that what they have is a Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae) that grows for 15 years or longer before flowering. That stalk is what is called a “terminal flower,” meaning that when it finishes blooming it dies, a dramatic swan song after a bravura performance.

The plant world is full of oddities. But among the more intriguing are plants that take their sweet time to bloom. Some are botanically programmed to behave that way. Others, often because they’re growing outside their native habitat, take years, if not decades, to bloom. And when they do, it can become a major horticultural event.

Consider the Andean wax palm, Ceroxylon quindiuense. One of these rare specimens was just a tiny shaver when it was planted in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in 1986. They are among the tallest-growing palms in the world, soaring to heights of 200 feet in the wilds. San Francisco’s tree is 50 feet tall.

“It just flowered for the first time as of a few weeks ago,” said Ryan Guillou, the garden’s chief curator. “It is maybe the first of its kind to bloom in North America. Right now we’ve sent photos off to some various botanists who specialize in palms, several in Colombia. We’re going to see if it’s the species we think it is. Everyone is quite excited to see it.”

When the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley announced that a rare and endangered South African Puya raimondii, planted as a seed in 1990, began flowering five years ago, it created a stir.

Commonly known as “queen of the Andes,” it is one of the slowest-flowering of all plant species, taking up to 100 years to bloom in the wild. Taken outside its high-altitude native climate and placed in a warmer coastal climate, the rare bromeliad was expected to speed up its life cycle. Its inflorescence — a group or cluster of flowers arranged on a stem — produced thousands of white flowers at the tips of its horn-shaped branches. Two more puyas bloomed last year.

Vanessa Handley, director of collections and research at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, said the plant will set millions of seeds and then die when it’s done flowering, the same thing that is happening with the Hicks’ agave.

“That’s the case with many of these plants that put on a show after many years. They’re called monocarpic,” she said. “Plants have all sorts of makes and models. Some annual plants do their thing in one growing season. They flower and die like California poppies. Then you have plants broadly described as perennials, because they grow year after year. Some perennials are monocarpic.”

Handley said the dead stalk was left for educational purposes for garden visitors. Meanwhile, two more were readying to flower nearby. Last summer, the pair bloomed at the same time, an event unheard of in captivity.

“The individual flowers are pale. They’re pretty and super showy. The stalks are absolutely massive,” Handley said.

The UC garden welcomed another rare blooming event this month. A Peruvian native orchid, Phragmipedium kovachii, was discovered in 2002. It became heavily poached and is now listed as critically endangered. As a Plant Rescue Center for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the garden received the orchid four years ago after it was illegally imported into the United States.

“This was the first time we’ve seen it flower,” Handley said. “But it didn’t even last two weeks before it was gone.”

Laura Cline and Jeremy Nicholas this year watched in wonder as their Parry’s agave (Agave parryi) sent up a giant stalk up to 8 feet tall. Several were already planted on their rural Santa Rosa property when they purchased it 22 years ago. And periodically, one will do its spectacular death dance.

“The first time you see it bloom you’re in awe. You just start seeing this giant asparagus coming up and wonder what’s going on. So we looked it up,” Cline said. This is the third time one of their agaves has bloomed.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy for the plant to produce the stalk, flower and seed. By the time it is done, it is spent. While their agave was producing little yellow flowers the couple, both avid birders, delighted in watching orioles “bury their little faces” in the blooms.

The agaves produce offshoots called pups that can then germinate and begin a new cycle. The old stalk will eventually keel over.

Cline said her plant is gray green with “killer thorns” that inspired them to call it “the death plant.”

Among the most notorious of plants with a strange blooming habit is the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), otherwise known as the “corpse plant” because of the stench of rotting flesh that it produces when its inflorescence is fully open. The smell is aimed at attracting insect pollinators like carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies. It rarely flowers in cultivation, producing a flower only after seven to nine years. When it does, the flower is open for only 48 hours.

Others include a Sansevieria with the common name “mother-in-law’s tongue.” With tall upright leaves, it is a popular house plant. It rarely ever blooms until it is close to death.

Handley said there is something infectious about waiting and witnessing an ephemeral flower come and go.

“It’s all about humility and patience,” she said. “I think it’s just the thrill of seeing something you’ve nurtured, be it a pot of petunias or a magnificenttree or specimen, that is going to flower. Knowing that it is a rare and exciting event can make it very much worth the wait.”

Meg McConahey is at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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