Shoots bring sum­mer won­der

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - HOME - Peter Cun­dall

IT HAP­PENS ev­ery year about this time. All over Tas­ma­nia a cer­tain plant starts to grow so in­cred­i­bly fast that in just three weeks it can reach up to 8m. And the queries keep flow­ing in about this ex­tra­or­di­nary plant.

A week or so ago, a lady sent a pho­to­graph ask­ing me what on earth was the name of this weird, high- speed tree.

In fact, this is no tree but a type of suc­cu­lent com­monly called the Cen­tury Plant ( sci­en­tific name Agave amer­i­cana). It orig­i­nates from Mex­ico but thrives here in Tas­ma­nia.

This as­ton­ish­ing plant de­vel­ops an enor­mous rosette of mas­sive leaves, with edges sport­ing blunt prick­les.

It can take up to 20 years to flower, hence the pop­u­lar but in­ac­cu­rate name Cen­tury Plant, but when it does so, the pow­er­ful, sin­gle, trunk- like flower spike emerges and grows so rapidly we can al­most watch it hap­pen­ing.

As it reaches its full height the top part opens up to dis­play dozens of yel­low and green flow­ers on long stems, look­ing like some weird Christ­mas tree.

This re­mark­able ef­fort is so ex­haust­ing that even as flower- heads wither, the en­tire plant dies.

Agave amer­i­cana pro­duces great quan­ti­ties of a sweet­ish sap, which when al­lowed to be­come fer­mented is a source of the al­co­holic drink tequila.

In Mex­ico the flow­ers are pol­li­nated by hum­ming birds. Avoid cut­ting into this giant stem be­cause the sap flows freely and can cause se­ri­ous skin ir­ri­ta­tion.

An­other slightly re­lated semi- suc­cu­lent shrub also comes into flower dur­ing early sum­mer and sim­i­larly at­tracts a great deal of cu­rios­ity.

Yucca glo­riosa ( Span­ish Dag­ger) does well in ex­tra- dry, sandy soils, but can also be grown in most well- drained con­di­tions.

This ex­tra- tough, frost- hardy but highly at­trac­tive plant thrives in coastal sand dunes de­spite strong, salt- laden winds.

The leaves are nar­row, deep green and each has a sharp tip.

How­ever, the flower spike can grow 2m to 3m and pro­duces mag­nif­i­cent clus­ters of big, pearly white, bell- shaped flow­ers.

This re­mark­able, eas­ily grown shrub – which comes from south- east US – ap­pears to thrive, even if to­tally ne­glected and never wa­tered or fed. Most live for many years, al­ways flow­er­ing dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­day pe­riod.

One large shrub or small tree now about to come into De­cem­ber dis­play reg­u­larly at­tracts dozens of in­quiries – mainly be­cause it is rel­a­tively un­fa­mil­iar, yet par­tic­u­larly spec­tac­u­lar when in full bloom. This is the Nepal Straw­berry Tree ( Cor­nus

cap­i­tata), which orig­i­nates from the Hi­malayan re­gions.

In fact, one of the big­gest I’ve ever seen was grow­ing in a gar­den high up the side of Mt Welling­ton, right on the edge of the tree line. Clearly they can with­stand the most in­tense cold and heavy snow.

The “flow­ers” are ac­tu­ally mod­i­fied leaves or bracts and are a su­perb sul­phur- yel­low.

The tree can grow up to 5m with a rounded top which is even wider. When in dis­play the en­tire canopy is cov­ered with so many bracts it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to see the leaves or branches.

This is the ul­ti­mate traf­fic- stop­per. Af­ter­wards the flow­er­ing bracts are re­placed by enor­mous num­bers of giant, deep- red, straw­berry- like fruit which, al­though ined­i­ble to hu­mans, are rel­ished by birds. The hard seeds are eas­ily ger­mi­nated to create new plants.

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