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The holiday season is a time where I try to balance out the preparations for Christmas with time to sit back and enjoy the particular elements that only occur this time of year. On that note, I’m happy to report that I’ve finished shopping for gifts, which are all neatly wrapped underneath the tree or on their way to recipients who live far away. I must admit that I have never finished this early before and it is a bit disconcerting as I keep feeling as if I’m forgetting something important.

 

Last weekend, my mother treated us to an outing to The Nutcracker, by Ballet Arizona and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. 

We arrived a bit early, which gave us the perfect excuse to walk through the downtown area. Years ago, I worked in a tall office building as a landscape designer, but it had been a long time since I had spent any time there.

I was delighted to discover a tall Christmas tree in the center of an ice-skating rink – yes, there is ice-skating in downtown Phoenix.

Walking further on, we saw a unique use of umbrellas as art.

My younger daughters couldn’t figure out why the umbrellas were hanging upside down, but I quite liked the artistic effect.

A row of yellow bell shrubs (Tecoma stans stans) added a welcome splash of lush green and yellow color. While you’ll see them grown as a shrub, here they are pruned into small trees. Underneath is the groundcover yellow dot (Wedelia trilobata).

Once inside the Phoenix Symphony Hall, we admired the colorful Christmas trees. It was all quite festive, and my daughters were excited to watch their first ballet performance.

My mother and daughter, Gracie.

Although Gracie has autism, and many things cause her acute anxiety, she was doing very well as she had always wanted to see The Nutcracker.

 

My sister-in-law, daughters, and me!

There is one thing about the performance that I haven’t mentioned yet. My cousin’s daughter is one of the dancers in this ballet. She is a ‘snowflake’ in Act 1, and a ‘wildflower’ in Act 2.

This is all I can show you of the stage as photos of the performance aren’t allowed.

It was marvelous, and everyone enjoyed themselves. After the performance, we met my cousin’s daughter at the stage door, (Gracie hoped that she would still have her costume on). She was so happy that we had come to see her performance and I was struck by the fact that all the dancing genes in the family went to her (as well as her mother) – I certainly didn’t get any 😉

On our way back to the car, we passed by a striking vertical garden, filled with chuparosa (Justicia californica), octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), and yucca. Even though the chuparosa was a bit too overgrown, the overall effect was lovely.

Back home, things are rather quiet in the garden, with one exception:

 

 

My Halloween pumpkins that I filled with birdseed are still creating quite a buzz with the neighborhood birds. We have had Alber’s towhees, curved bill thrashers, finches, Inca doves, and sparrows come for a visit. It’s been a real treat watching them out the kitchen window. The pumpkins will probably have to be thrown out in another week, but it’s been nice to find a way to reuse them.

Lastly, we’ve been busy baking cookies for upcoming holiday events as well as to give to friends and neighbors. Snickerdoodles are by far our favorite, and they are so easy to make with ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry.

The recipe I use is an old one. I received it at my wedding shower, back in 1986, from a college friend. It has never failed me and cookies are delicious. I’ve had many requests to share it, so here it is:

*Please feel free to print it out and start your own annual Snickerdoodle cookie tradition.

One of the iconic plants of the Southwest flowers only once and produces the most unusual flowers you will probably ever see. 

What is even more interesting, is that each one of these plants produces a different type of flower depending on the species. 

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the plant dies after flowering.

So, by now you may have guessed that I am talking about Agave, sometimes referred to as Century Plant, although they do not take that long to flower.

As I was preparing this post, I was going through my photos of flowering agave and I was struck again at how unusual they are and how different they look from species to species.  Some form a single stalk and others branch out from the single stalk.

I would like to share with you some of my favorites….

When an agave flowers is largely dependent on the species.  Some only take 8 years, while others can wait up to 25 years before they flower.
Some people inadvertently hasten the flowering process by over watering and fertilizing their agave.


 Not all agave flower at the same time.  Some start in the spring while others begin in the fall.


 Contrary to popular opinion, removing the flowering stalk, will not keep your agave alive.  
In fact, you are interfering with the agave’s crowning glory – their life’s work by removing their flower.
It is fascinating to see how the stalk begins to rapidly grow and then transforms as you can see from the following photos of an Octopus Agave (Agave vilmoriniana).
The stalk begins to appear.
It is so interesting to view up close.
The flowering stalk has reached its full height.
Small Octopus Agave that are just waiting to fall and root.  Or you can pull them off and plant them yourself.
The entire flowering process can take months and in many cases, the flowering stalk is quite beautiful and is highly prized.
You can even keep it after it has dried out.  Believe it or not, people pay money for dried agave stalks.
In my own landscape, I have 4 different types of agave and I am always thrilled when I see the flower stalk appear and can witness the strange and beautiful flowering process.
The flower of Agave desmettiana
So, how about you?  Have you witnessed an agave flowering?
Imagine a plant that lives for years, never flowering, and then towards the end of it’s life, expends all of it’s energy to produce flowers on a giant stem and then dies….
Agave colorata getting ready to flower.
 
The story begins with an agave starting to grow it’s flowering stalk, or inflourescence.  The growth is incredibly fast, growing up to 1 ft. each day.  Depending on the species, the flowering stalk can reach heights up to 40 ft. 
Agave murpheyi sending up it’s flower stalk.
 *I took the picture, above, at a client’s house and she referred to the flowering stalk as an ‘asparagus stalk’ because that is what it looks like.
When most people think of Agave, they think of the Century Plant, (Agave americana), and believe that it will flower once it reaches 100 years old.  This is actually a myth.  Although the timeline can vary, Agave americana does not live that long and flower much sooner.  There are over 250 agave species and most flower towards the end of their life and then die.
Actually, the length of time an agave lives is largely dependent on the species.  In my experience in the managed landscapes, most agave live approximately 5 – 15 years, once planted from a 5-gallon container.
  
I am not completely sure what species this particular agave was.
Note the ‘pup’ growing from the side of the agave.
 
There are two different styles of the flowering stalk (inflourescence).  The paniculate, above, and the spiculate, below.
Octopus Agave (Agave vilmoriniana)
I planted this agave (as a 5-gallon) in 1999 and it flowered in 2005. 
Agave reproduce both by flowering (seeds) and vegetatively (bulbils & offsets). 
You can read more about how agave produce offsets (pups) and how to plant them from a previous post – Pups In The Garden…Not The Soft Cuddly Kind.

The flower of an Smooth Leaf Agave (Agave desmettiana)
This is an agave from my garden, which was planted in 1998 and flowered in 2007.

You can see the small bulbils (baby agave) forming among the flowers above.  The bulbils will continue to grow and will receive nourishment from the stalk.  If left alone, the bulbils will eventually fall to the ground and root under ideal conditions.  They can be removed from the flowering stalk and planted, but do best if left until they have formed at least four leaves.
An agave in the desert that has died after flowering.

Close-up of the, now dead, stalk (inflourescence)

 
Bulbils on the flowering stalk of an Octopus Agave (Agave vilmorniana)
They are ready to be picked off and can be planted in well-drained soil.
Early on as a horticulture student, I fell in love with Octopus Agave and I bought my first one at a plant sale.  I planted it in a large pot and it thrived.  Years later, the flowering stalk started to grow.  I was both excited and a little sad.  I was happy because it was finally achieving it’s crowning glory….and sad because I knew it would eventually die at the end after finishing it’s life’s work.


However, that is not the end of the story….my original Agave lives on.  I took two bulbils from it’s stalk and planted them (above) and they are ready to be planted out in my garden. (Actually, I could have planted them much sooner).
**Note the little seedling coming up on the left side of the pot.  My son planted the seed, but we aren’t sure what it is.  I think he might have planted an apple seed.  We shall see….