Surprise! Century plants last a decade

The century plant regenerates at the base with numerous smaller plants known as pups.

My grandmother turns 98 this summer.

She lives alone in the two-story house and still sleeps in the upstairs bedroom with an air-conditioning unit in the window. She never hurries from point A to point B, but she’s more lucid than I am. There’s no reason to think she won’t reach the century mark.

There’s something special about an age that includes three numbers. In the landscape, there’s a plant named for such an occasion.

The century plant (Agave americana) is recognized as a super-sized succulent. The massive plant sprouts large fleshy leaves that can reach 8 feet in height.

The leaves are blue-green with heavy-duty spines along the margin that can be quite a nuisance. Deer aren’t crazy about eating it.

The century plant is known as a succulent due to the high amount of water retention in the leaves. This elevated water-storage ability allows succulents to tolerate drought quite effectively.

Sedums, a low-growing type of succulent, are frequently used on green roofs because of their exceptional heat and drought tolerance. In arid parts of the country that are prone to forest fires, some homeowners have effectively used large succulents to protect their homes. Succulents might broil but they won’t spread flames.

The century plant is sure to get your attention due to its size and unusual form. It can serve as an excellent accent plant in large spaces. The name, however, implies that it lives for 100 years but that is not true. Some stories about the plant suggest that it flowers every 100 years but that’s not true, either.

The fact is my grandma has outlived most century plants by a factor of 10 because the century plant flowers when it reaches about 10 years of age and then promptly dies.

It only flowers once in its lifespan but it’s quite a show. The flower develops in late spring on a large stalk that can reach 20 feet in height. Yellow blooms open along the spike and resemble something from the world of Dr. Seuss. The flowers attract hummingbirds but the stalk remains long after they are spent.

The century plant blooms at the expense of the foliage and roots. The thick fleshy leaves wither up and blacken after the stalk has formed, wilting in a heap of decay. In this respect, it’s more short-lived than a Bradford pear tree.

However, the century plant regenerates at the base with numerous smaller plants known as pups.

Much like sago palms, these pups can be dug up and transplanted elsewhere. In the case of a blooming century plant, one pup can be allowed to remain and fill in for the deceased parent plant. Due to the quick growth rate, a pup can adequately fill the space within a couple of years.

Transplanting century plant pups is not difficult. You may or may not get many roots when digging pups, but they can still be successfully transplanted.

While the pup will become extremely drought-tolerant, supplemental water in the first year or two will be necessary until the root system gets established. Some people like to put pups in pots for later planting. This also helps to quickly establish a root system.

The century plant prefers full sun. If you want to hasten the growth to fill in for a recently deceased parent plant, continue watering as well as fertilizing.

Keep in mind that a happy century plant will get about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, so give it plenty of space to spread out. Also, keep it away from sidewalks and driveways to avoid the spiky foliage. It’s pleasant to look at, not pet.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. Email: