Century Plants bloom only once in their life, the blooming spike is so large and grows so fast that it saps all the resources of the plant, which then dies, leaving a tall wooden seed stalk. The plant is called the “century plant” because of this “once a century” bloom (actually the plant lives an average of 25 years). It was also an important plant to indigenous people, being used for medicines, fiber, needles, and food.
Monday, September 11, 1933 – Time Magazine Article:
Botanists realized again last week that “century plant” is a complete misnomer for the American aloe (Agave americana). In Mexico where it is called the maguey it takes only 15 years or so to store up the energy to bloom. Unblooming, it looks like an ordinary ground-palm: a rosette of long, pointed leaves spreading out from a central core . When its time comes it hastily pokes up a huge flowering stalk, thick as a tree trunk, from 15 to 40 ft. high, tops it with a huge cauliflower sprig with hundreds of little white or yellow tubular flowers. After holding this climax for a month, the tall stalk withers, the whole plant dies. Mexicans commonly intercept the climax by cutting out the stalk bud as soon as it shows, hollowing out a basin in the central core. The plant pours its banked energy into the place where the flower-stalk ought to be, produces a basin of sweet sap from which Mexicans make their national drink, syrupy pulque. By distilling fermented pulque they make mescal, a potent liquor. By letting the flower stalk grow, drying and slicing the firm pith, they get natural razor strops, insulating material.