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Jack and the agave stalk

Newport couple mesmerized by two-story tall succulent in their backyard and ponder what to do with it after it dies.

July 19, 2013|By Jill Cowan
  • Nancy Geerlings talks about the giant agave in her back yard in Newport Beach on Wednesday , July 17, 2013. (Scott Smeltzer, Coastline Pilot)
Nancy Geerlings talks about the giant agave in her back… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

There's a monster in Nancy and Jack Geerlings' backyard — and it's been growing.

"Our neighbors keep coming in and saying, 'Oh my gosh,'" Nancy Geerlings said, shading her eyes to look up at the monster's head, which, for the first time in nearly three decades, has begun to sprout clusters of dusky pink and chartreuse blossoms.

Some might find the thing intimidating. The specimen is, after all, about the height of a two-story house. It's broad as a bus at its base and its gray-green appendages, which point in all directions, end in sharp points, like a bouquet of Hagrid-sized daggers.

The Geerlings, however, see their resident giant, commonly known as a century plant, as a more benevolent presence.

"You'll notice that it welcomes you with open arms," Jack Geerlings said.

But now, after spending the past 25 years slowly stretching toward the sun, the towering plant — with the scientific name Agave americana — that looks out over Newport Harbor from a perch behind the Geerlingses' Westcliff home is getting ready to die.

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Agaves, many of which are native to Mexico and the Southwest, typically grow slowly, storing up energy, said Stephen Weller, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. Once they do, though, most die rather than branch off at their base.

"Evolutionarily that's pretty interesting," he said. "I think the idea is that by producing this very large inflorescence and waiting until enough energy has been produced, then it produces so many seeds that the probability of some of them establishing becomes quite high."

While Agave americana can take anywhere from about 15 to 25 years to grow large enough to flower, upon seeing a picture of the Geerlingses' specimen, Weller said, "It's one of the bigger ones."

Nancy said she and Jack have never really done anything to encourage the plant's growth.

"I don't know much about it," she said with a shrug.

Weller said they're fairly common in the area.

Still, he wrote in an email, "this is a monster plant, and very impressive."

The Geerlingses' plant is a descendant of an Agave americana that was already in the yard when the family first moved in, back in the early 1970s. Then, about 15 years later, it bloomed.

A couple months after it first started to flower, the asparagus-like stalk fell over, Nancy recalled.

"I was at school, so I didn't see it," she said. Nancy, who along with Jack, is now retired, taught English at Corona del Mar High School.

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