Agave: ‘Sharkey’, Death and the Meaning of Life

It’s noon and Sharkey is dismembered.  Here’s how it happened:

‘Agave down! I repeat, Wind is up and Sharkey is down!’ (This was the Facebook post I made on Oct. 13 coming home after dark.)

Nothing terribly dramatic, Sharkey just succumbed to the wind, toppling to the east, guided by the fishing line into the adjacent Callistemon and Palm. More wind this afternoon and, of course, on its way tomorrow!  (This followed the next morning.)

Do you remember last nights storm? I was out for about an hour during commute with a neighbor trying to keep drains clear and the river of water out of our basement! Sharkey is now laying on our railing. Julie says that I’m like a pet owner denying the inevitable who thinks he’s getting better. I’m afraid he’s just a head knocker for pedestrians now! (I posted this this morning.)

Now Sharkey sits in two sections on my front porch with the rosette, half its roots snapped off, sitting loosely where it’s grown for years. The main section of stem is 13’ long, the flowering portion is 5’6” and the rosette is 22”, making a grand total of 20’ 4”.  I cut a one inch long segment off and you can see how the entire stem appears to be a bundle of very tightly packed fibers.  Lay this on the ground and flatten it with a hammer and all of the fibers fan out like a piece of fraying rope.  This is where the strength of the stem comes from.  It was probably never in any danger of ‘failing’ itself.  Agave fibers have been used for cordage and rope for many centuries through present day.  The roots do seem to be the weak point, the failure point.

The seed pods are all green.  I’ll slice a few open to check, but I don’t think any have ripened their seed.  Remembering how these flowers have pollination issues, it’s interesting to see the pattern of aborted, unpollinated ovaries, each unsuccessful flower leaving a scar where it fell away from its peduncle.  Remember the flowers are protandrus, each flower producing mature stamens first, releasing pollen before the stigma of the same individual flower are receptive, the flowers on each peduncle opening on the same day, and there was no other Agave around to share pollen with.  One photo shows scars scattered throughout the inflorescence, the most heavy concentrations at the bottom, the earliest, and at the top, the latest, which would have no pollen available for their then ‘ready’ stigmas.

I removed and dissected two older peduncles weeks ago while they were flowering. The peduncle shown here, removed from the stem, has eight scars, one from each aborted ovary, between these are other smaller nubs, primordia, that look like tiny suppressed flower buds.  These primordia are formed, limited and activated by genes in the apical meristem at the tip of the terminal which also produce auxins, or hormones, ‘calling’ for more flowers to initiate growth…or not.  Each peduncle contains the ‘potential’ for many more than the nine flowers that actually opened on this peduncle.

I chose to dissect the oldest remaining seed pod, the only one on its peduncle.  Each pod is divided into three chambers running length wise, a thin, but ‘fleshy’ membrane separating them.  Within each chamber is a double row of seed packed tightly one atop the next.  Each seed is flatish and glossy black.  I sliced through a typical seed and it was filled with a ‘crisp’, coconut like, endosperm.  They would appear to be viable.

Agave present an interesting question, why, as monocarpic plants, do we find this characteristic so odd.  Annuals, by definition monocarpic, grow one season, flower, produce their seed and then die, we accept with no odd looks or questions.  Perennials, even short lived perennials, we accept, though we are never happy about them.  Short lived perennials are a disappointment.  They should live longer!  Because they don’t we may think that there was something we missed, something more that we could have done to extend them to some more reasonable life span.  Their ‘early’ deaths serve as a reminder of our own sometimes shortened lifespans and this can make us uneasy.  Perennials are more of a reflection of our own reproductive lives, or at least our potentials, but Agaves, and plants that live for years before flowering once and dying, strike us as somehow ‘odd’.  I’ve had many people walk by, since ‘Sharkey’s’ flowering process began in April, react with surprise when I told them that it took years to get to this stage, which they seem to accept, only to react with some incredulity when I told them that it would die after flowering this one and only time.   One time, I said to a curb side visitor, ‘kind of like Salmon that go out to sea as fry and return several years later, struggle to reach the waters of their birth, spawn and then die.’  We have a tendency to view nature from a very human position, in terms of ourselves, which is very understandable.  Organisms like trees, that may live many times our own expected lifespans, for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of years, we are more likely to take for granted, as if they are some kind of given, like the rock of the earth itself, or venerate as superior beings, while an industrial forester would view a mature forest, as stagnate and unproductive, in need of harvest and ‘renewal’.  Mother nature has many survival strategies and has no need to check in with us to see if it fits our own sensibilities or values.  As part of the larger process of life it is easy to forget this, especially if we are not involved with its cycling and unfolding around us.  Gardening connects us and reminds us of the necessity for relationship with the living world if it is to continue.  The purpose of life is its own fullest expression.  In a game of the survival of the fittest we would ‘win’ as life around us dies, raising our own position, but if its about the fullest expression, it would be incumbent upon us to understand it and to make a place for all forms, all species, so that they all might live and flourish.  Genetic diversity is the key to survival, not for the individual, but for the species and the various communities they are a part of .  There will be no prize awarded to the one who causes or watches the most die out.  The reward is in the enjoyment of the living of each one, satisfaction, gained in the aiding of others.  And so, Sharkey has ‘died’.  I have been a passive observer over the course of much of its life, finally being fully drawn in toward its end, its climactic event, its flowering and production of seed.  Beyond enjoying its beautiful and expanding structure earlier, I had previously only watched closely, when it produced its few ‘pups’, carefully removing them and passing them on to others, but I was not there at it’s beginning, playing mid-wife.  I’ve been to the desert and mountains of its ‘cousins’, but it’s germinal beginning is the last link in its chain of life I have yet to observe, to play a role in.

I guess now I need to decide whether I’ll grow some on from seed!


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