When your old plants start behaving weirdly
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.