A huge agave, or century plant, is now blooming at Auburn, N.Y. A few days ago the great plant became tinged with a delicate yellowish-white color, as its 4,000 buds began to develop into the full-blown flowers, whose penetrating fragrance, not unlike that of the pond lily, now attracts swarms of bees and other insects. The plant was purchased in 1837 by the owner, and was then twelve years old. For half a century the agave has lain around his greenhouses in company with several others, and no special care has been taken of it, except to protect it somehow in winter, that it might be fresh for the next summer's growth. The plant has always been a hardy specimen, and required little care. Its whole life, now speedily approaching a termination in the fulfillment of the end of its existence - flowering - has been a sluggish course. Its growth has been steady and its development gradual. Occasionally it has thrust out a spiked leaf until, in size, it became greater than its fellow plants and took on the likeness of an enormous cabbage which had been arrested in its development and failed to attain perfection. Early last April its appearance began to undergo a decided change. Its resemblance to a cabbage lessened, and it began to look like a giant asparagus plant.
On April 12, the great fleshy leaves, massed together so as to impress the imprint of their spines upon one another, began to unfold, and a thick, succulent bud burst up amid the leaves. Slowly the stalk developed from the bud and assumed gigantic proportions. Green scales appeared in regular arrangement about the stalk, marking the points from which lateral branches were to spring. The thick stalk, tender and brittle at first as new asparagus, became tough and hard enough to resist a knife, and its surface assumed the gritty character of the leaves of the plant. The low roof of the hothouse became an obstruction to further growth, and had to be removed. Lateral limbs were, at a later period, thrust out in great numbers, each of them bearing small branches, as do strawberry plants, on which hang sprays of buds in bunches of from three to ten, making in all many hundreds, all waiting for the completion and blooming of the topmost buds. The inflorescence of the century plant is peculiar, and the appearance of flowers on the lower branches may be simultaneous with, or consecutive to, the blossoming on the upper limbs. With the appearance of the lateral outshoots the great aloe lost its likeness to asparagus, and at present bears resemblance to an immense candelabra.
The plant is now fully matured, and has a height of twenty-seven feet. There are thirty-three branches on the main stem, and, by actual count, one of the lateral limbs was found to bear 273 perfect buds, some of whose green sepals have spread, revealing the yellowish-white petals and essential parts of the plant. The ample panicles crowded with curious blossoms are, as, indeed, the Greek name of the plant - agave - signifies, wonderful.
There is a pathetic view to be taken of the great plant's present condition. For years it has been preparing to flower, and the shoot it has sent up is the dying effort. The blossoms carry in them the life of new plants, and the old plant dies in giving them birth. It is commonly supposed that this plant, the Agave Americana, or American aloe, blooms only at the end of 100 years, hence the common name century plant.
Only two plants are on record among the floriculturists as having bloomed in New York State. Thirty years ago, a century plant, of which the Casey aloe was a slip, flowered in the greenhouses of the Van Rensselaer family at Albany. In 1869, a second plant blossomed at Rochester. At present, two aloes, one at Albany, the other at Brooklyn, are reported as giving evidences of approaching maturity. They are pronounced not American aloes, or century plants, but Agave Virginica, a plant of the same family commonly found in sterile soil from Virginia to Illinois and south, and blossoming much more frequently. In Mexico the century plant is turned to practical account and made a profitable investment to its owners. After the scape has reached its full growth it is hewn down, and the sap, which fills the hollow at its base, is ladled out and converted by fermentation into "agave wine," or "pulque," the favorite drink of the Mexicans. This pulque, or octli, has an acid resembling that of cider, and a very disagreeable odor, but the taste is cooling and refreshing. A brandy distilled from pulque is called "aquardiente," or "mexical." The plant, by tapping, can be made to yield a quart of sap daily. The fibers of the leaves when dried furnish a coarse thread known as Pita flax, and when green are used in Mexico as fodder for cattle. Razor strops or hones are also made from the leaves, which contain an abundance of silica and give rise to a very sharp edge on a knife applied with friction across the surface of the dried leaf.