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Posted: June 13, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Once in a lifetime

Century plant blooms after 20 years

Photo by Sabastian Wee/

Anybody driving down Floyd Street in the last two decades may have seen the giant cactus-like plant outside the home of Ann May. The plant, commonly known as a century plant, is now beginning to bloom after all these years of wowing passersby.

May, a longtime resident of Covington, could not be more proud of her plant, which she named Mother.

"A friend of mine was in Alabama about 20 years ago when she discovered this plant in a person’s yard. She brought a couple of the pups back to me and Mother has been here ever since," May said. "I have given away hundreds of Mother’s babies all across the county. Some have told me I should sell them, but this is not about that; I wanted to share Mother’s babies with as many people as I could."

The century plant (Agave Americana) originated in Mexico. Its name comes from the exaggerated belief that the plant takes 100 years to bloom, though the number is more like 20. It is also known as maguey and American aloe in certain parts of the world.

According to various Internet sources, the Agave is also an integral part of the Mexican culture. The flower stems, cut before flowering, create a sweet liquid that may be fermented to produce "pulque," a popular Mexican alcoholic beverage. The mammoth leaves contain tough fibers that can be used for making rope, matting and also used to embroider leather.

The plant begins as a rosette of green-gray leaves, each growing up to six-feet long. The leaves bear a spiny outline, with a thick thorn at the end strong enough to penetrate to the bone.

May’s son, Ken, who lives with her and helps maintain her garden, warned of thorn pricks that can cause an infection lasting for weeks.

"I’ve been stung by the leaves before, thankfully I did not get any infections. You have to be very careful when handling a plant like this," he cautioned.

May also has a few more of Mother’s babies growing in her backyard. Two of the plants stand on each side of a beautiful garden arbor built by May’s late husband.

"Mom loves her flowers, but we had to trim the leaves of these babies because it was becoming too big and nearly broke through the top of Dad’s arbor," Ken said. "You have to give them space and not plant them too close to the house or driveway."

Once the budding starts, the stem of the Agave, known as the spike, will blast up to 30-feet high within a matter of weeks. The spike is strong enough to grow through a roof, therefore it is recommended for outdoor living. However, the plant size can be contained by simply planting it in a flower pot. It will grow to its typical height once planted outdoors.

"I’ve had a few friends whose babies did not survive. The trick is good drainage and no fertilizer. Water must not collect and should be planted near a ridge or a slope to allow water to run off. Another important factor is you should plant the baby where it will get plenty of sunshine," instructs May.

Over the years, Mother has brought plenty of curious residents to May’s home, gradually turning it into something of a tourist attraction.

"People would drive past and then back up their cars to get a closer look. Once, a professor from the University of Georgia came over just to see Mother. It’s amazing the kind of attention Mother has received over the years," May said.

The plant only blooms once; it sprouts a candelabrum of yellow flowers at the top of its flagpole spike. After flowering, the plant will die, leaving plenty of adventitious shoots to continue its legacy. The bloom can last up to two months, though it is different with each plant. Mother is now beginning to bloom.

"Because I have given Mother’s babies to so many people, I thought they should know where their babies came from. As this is a once in a lifetime bloom for Mother, I would love for people to come out and take a look at her, and see how awesome she has become," she said with affection. "I just wish my husband could’ve lived to see her at her most beautiful."

Ann May and Mother live at 6151 Floyd Street.

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