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Weather threatens rare plant Cold may kill botanical giant before its one chance to bloom

Like the rest of us, the century plant at the Botanical Gardens was fooled into thinking spring had arrived.

During a deceptively warm spell last month, a glass ceiling panel in the Desert House, where succulents and other Southwest flora are exhibited, was removed so the plant's rapidly rising blooming spike could push up into the, ah, sunny sky.

Now, with the tip exposed to punishing wind, rain and snow, the huge plant may not live to do what century plants are famous for -- flower for the first and only time in its life and then die.

"It hasn't done much the last two weeks," fretted Botanical Gardens horticulturist Doug O'Reilly. "Supposedly, as long as the base stays warm it should be OK."

If the cruel April weather conditions persist, and the century plant dies prematurely, visitors to the South Park conservatory will miss a natural phenomenon.

The spike, which resembles a giant asparagus stalk, normally would rise to a height of about 20 feet, 10 feet above the greenhouse roofline, and then burst out in a bouquet of yellow or reddish-pink, pad-like blooms.

Because the stalk's rapid growth sucks up all of the plant's nutrients, the show would be brief. The whole plant, 10 feet wide at the base, would quickly go kaput, leaving only a brown seed stalk.

As its botanical name, agave parryi, implies, the plant is a member of the agave family. But unlike the much smaller blue agave displayed nearby, it can't be harvested to make tequila. In fact, the century plant's juices are highly toxic; a Botanical Gardens employee once suffered leg burns after trimming the specimen.

"Getting it out of here when it dies is going to be a delicate operation," said Botanical Gardens spokeswoman Erin Grajek.

It is believed that the plant was given to the gardens after fire destroyed the Desert House in 1977, which means it is at least 30 years old. Incidentally, the name is a misnomer; century plants live 25 years on average.

"A friend of mine in Arizona has two that haven't flowered yet, and they are older than this one," O'Reilly said.

Regardless of how this particular drama ends, the Desert House is worth visiting because of the "rolling bloom" now occurring with the succulents, cacti and other plants, Grajek said.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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