It was late January when Jared Chauncey, Senior Horticulturist and arid plant expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden, noticed that something extraordinary was about to happen: an Agave pelona was sending up a flowering stalk. It was about to bloom.
These plants live for decades before sending up the only bloom of their lifetime—they are monocarpic, meaning that they die after blooming.
An Agave pelona blooms in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s arid plant greenhouse. Photo by Kristina DeYong.
The Agave pelona is listed as critically endangered by the ICUN and is endemic to the mountains of Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. It inhabits “sky island habitats,” which refers to its occurrence at higher altitudes where the temperature is much cooler than the surrounding desert. As temperatures rise with climate change, the Agave pelona is left with nowhere to go. This, along with its popularity among collectors who seek it out for trade or personal collections, has pushed this already-small population to the brink of extinction.
It is no wonder that there are those who wish to collect the plant; its wine-red blooms and vibrant golden anthers form a fiery display that is not common to agave plants—very few agaves feature red flowers. Flowering agaves can be pollinated by moths and other insects, hummingbirds, and nectar feeding bats. Red flowers are usually associated with birds, so it is thought that hummingbirds are likely a significant pollinator of the Agave pelona.
The wine-red blooms of the Agave pelona are unusual—most agave plants do not produce red flowers. Photo by Kristina DeYong.
Of course, hummingbirds were not around to pollinate the specimen that flowered in the Garden’s arid greenhouse—that’s where Jared Chauncey came in.
With very few of these plants left in the world, the species’ survival depends on the remaining specimens’ ability to produce seed. The appearance of the rare bloom gave Chauncey the chance to collect pollen and hand-pollinate the flowers. This gives the plant a chance to produce seed and create offspring. That way, its grand finale will not be in vain.
Right now, the Agave pelona lives behind the scenes in the Garden’s arid greenhouse, where the horticulture team can keep a close eye on it. At the moment, there is not a public conservatory available on Garden grounds that would suit the plant’s needs. However, as a part of the Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center project, renovations are underway on the Shoenberg Temperate House and Linnean House, along with the construction of the brand-new Emerson Conservatory. These spaces will allow the Garden to share much more of its collections, including arid plants like the Agave pelona, with the public in the near future.
Senior Horticulturist and arid plant expert Jared Chauncey stands with the blooming Agave pelona; Chauncey is 6’3″ tall. Photo by Kristina DeYong.
The Garden has one more Agave pelona specimen in addition to the one that is currently blooming. These plants are unpredictable, but these two individuals are close to each other in age and have been living in similar conditions in the Garden’s arid greenhouse, so it is possible that the next specimen will bloom in the near future when it can be displayed publicly in a Garden conservatory.
If either of these specimens sets seed successfully, those seeds could become the next generation of Agave pelona, ensuring that the species survives to see another day. Thanks to the Garden’s horticulture team, these plants have the chance to leave a legacy that lives long past their bloom.
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