South Pasadena resident Gina Phelps stands in front of her massive agave plant, also known as a Century Plant, that is getting ready to bloom. Photo by Steve Whitmore

It’s known as a Century Plant and its getting ready for its grand finale when it bursts forth into the sky with an enormous colorful display of yellow and green flowers only to then promptly wither and die. And it’s sitting right in the back yard of the home of longtime South Pasadena resident Gina Phelps.

Phelps, who has lived in So Pas for 25 years, has been watching the plant’s unique stalk emanate from the center of the giant plant that can reach up to the heavens 20 to 30 feet.

“I’ve been watching it every day,” Phelps said recently during an hour-long interview in her back yard at 1105 Meridian Ave. “It’s growing so fast, four to six inches a day.”

The agave is native to North America and this giant plant can be found in the southwestern United States and Mexico, according to the website, gardeninggonewild.com.

“The Century Plant is a hardy survivor, tolerating both heat and drought for long periods of time,’ the website states. “The enormous agave is a monocarpic plant. After 10 years or more — though not a century — at the end of the plant’s life cycle, a lofty asparagus-like flower stalk is produced, reaching a height of 20-30 feet, with horizontal branching structures ending in panicles of 3-4” green to pale yellow blooms. After blooming, the plant dies, leaving offsets or pups at the base, which begin a new life cycle. The Century Plant is propagated by detaching and transplanting the well-rooted pups from the base, or by plantlets formed on the flower spike. When the spike emerges from the center of the agave rosette, it resembles an asparagus spear. This branches and produces masses of nectar-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees. Agave nectar, now sold in many supermarkets, is a popular natural sweetener. It’s similar to honey but dissolves more readily in cold liquid and is not as strongly flavored. The blossoms on the bloom spike form bulbous little plants. Each branch cluster holds dozens. As the mother agave dies, it can no longer support its towering stalk. When this topples, it efficiently propels the offspring to the earth.”

Phelps was ignorant of all this when she transplanted the “strange little plant” from her neighbor’s back yard.

“We are thinking that we planted it in about 2009,” Phelps said. “We didn’t know it would get so big. The neighbors actually had it in their yard for a couple of years and then they took it out and it was just sitting there and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Then we had it sitting in our yard and then we planted it and it just kept growing and growing and growing.”

When they planted it back in 2009, it was about three-feet across and two-feet tall, Phelps said.

“Now I think it’s about 18- to 20-feet across,” she said. “The asparagus stalk is about 20-feet now. It will get 20- to 30-feet tall when it gets ready to flower.”

Phelps is in a holding pattern waiting for the plant to bloom, watching and anticipating as each day brings it closer to the end of its life-cycle. 

“When it first starts blooming, it starts to die,” she said. “The stalk will get tall, and then it sends out these flowers, out of the side, and then the flowers die, and the plant dies.”

And Phelps said she’s already grieving the loss.

“I am going through a grieving process,” she said. “This plant has been in our yard for probably about 10 or 12 years and it’s beautiful. And I love it and so I’m very sad about it.”

The agave plant doesn’t require much attention, except the occasional trim, she said, but when it does die, it’s going to leave behind a mess.

“it’s going to be a huge mess,” she said. “Succulents are very fleshy and as it starts to disintegrate it’s going to be a huge mess.”

Looking back on the time that the plant has been in her home’s back yard, Phelps reiterated that they knew nothing about the desert-looking foliage with its extended spindle-like arms when they planted it. She thought it would be a nice addition for her tortoises. She has two.

“We didn’t know about any flowers,” she said. “We didn’t know it was going to get so big. We thought it was going to be small. But it kept growing and growing and so I started to research the plant. They’re called Century Plants because anywhere from between about 15 years to 100 years, it can produce the flower. This one we think is about 15 years old. I’m assuming it’s going to get taller before it blooms. I’m just not sure when that will happen.”

So, Phelps and her adult son, Jessie, wait. They wait to see the flowers bloom and then say goodbye to an old friend.

“I am excited for the flower,” she said. “I do want to see it. But I’m also sad.”

Phelps said that when the event unfolds, they will probably have a ceremony of some kind, a gathering of friends to celebrate the circle of life.

“Yes, we will probably have a party,” she said. “I think this is pretty unique for South Pasadena.”

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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