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Matthaei's immortal agave

Photograph of Jack Kevorkian, taken in front of his painting "The Gourmet (War)" at Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan. Courtesy the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.

By Sydney Hawkins

In full bloom

Experts say that the American agave plant usually flowers just once in its lifetime—between 15 and 35 years old—before dying.

So when an agave plant at the U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens bloomed back in April 2014 after an unprecedented 80 years, it struck a chord with botany enthusiasts and nature lovers the world over.

A window panel in the ceiling of the conservatory had to be removed because of the agave plant's 22 ft.high stalk.

A window panel in the ceiling of the conservatory had to be removed because of the agave plant’s 22 ft.high stalk.

“The attention that this agave plant received was completely unexpected,” said Michael Palmer, horticulture manager at Matthaei. “Not only did we welcome visitors in record numbers, we also received tons of emails. People were telling us their own agave stories and asking questions about the unique circumstances of ours.”

Palmer said that American agave plants aren’t uncommon in Southwestern states or in Central and South America where the weather is warm year-round, which is why many emails echoed a common question: “I have one of these plants growing in my backyard. Why is this one so special?”

Matthaei’s agave was collected from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in 1934 by Alfred Whiting, then a U-M graduate student. Whiting collected the rare variegated form of the American agave from the wild—different than most agaves sold today that are cultivated from tissue samples.

For many years since, people have been asking staff at Matthaei if or when it would bloom, and the reason why it eventually did is still a mystery.

“We had a couple of harsh winters, which affected the overall temperature of the greenhouse, so there could have been environmental cues that triggered it,” Palmer said. “That’s my best guess.”

The plant, which would never survive outdoors in Michigan’s climate, outgrew the conservatory greenhouse ceiling at an estimated six inches per day before peaking at 28 feet.


Michael Gould, professor of music, pictured playing percussion at the agave concert at Matthaei Botanical Gardens on Feb. 6, 2016.


Life after death

As soon as Matthaei’s agave began to bloom, Palmer decided to make plans regarding its afterlife.

“I knew that we had to do something with this plant that had captivated so many people,” he said. “We would definitely harvest the seedlings for research and to possibly sell to visitors in our store, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the stalk.”

After reaching out to a few different departments at U-M, Palmer received a response from Michael Gould, professor of music at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

The shakuhachi flute created from the stalk of the American agave maintained the shape of the original plant that bloomed at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in April 2014.

“I teach a class on making instruments out of found materials, so I was interested in this project right away,” said Gould, who enlisted the help of Ken LaCosse in San Francisco to make a Japanese shakuhachi flute—an instrument traditionally made out of bamboo.

He also contacted Michael Chikuzen Gould (no relation to U-M’s Michael Gould), a master shakuhachi flute player who, accompanied by Michael Gould’s percussion, played it for audiences at a concert in Matthaei’s conservatory in early February.

“We really came full circle,” said Joseph Mooney, communications director at Matthaei, who attended the sold out show. “It was remarkable to hear the very calming sound of the flute resonate throughout the same place where it died just over a year ago. There’s definitely symbolism in its story.”

Mooney also noted that another agave—planted right next to the original—is currently sending up a flower stalk that visitors can stop by to see in the coming days.

The conservatory is open daily from 10am to 4:30pm, with extended hours until 8pm on Wednesdays during the winter months (through mid-May). Hours change seasonally, and admission is free and open to the public.



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