Agave Flowers And Seeds

Driving into Southeast Arizona you can’t help but notice the agave stalks, no matter what time of year it is. The dead stalks, some over twenty feet tall, provide vertical accents to the landscape. These succulent plants are mostly Palmer’s Agave (Agave palmeri).

I enjoy seeing these odd plants, common as they are. There are several surrounding the house where I’m staying this summer.

Agaves live for ten to forty years and then die, sending up a fat asparagus-like flower-stalk which supports gracefully-curved branches. Each branch is terminated with flower-clusters which attract insects, humming-birds, and bats. The flowering period lasts for a couple of summer months. Here’s a typical stalk I photographed last June from my back porch. A municipal building can be seen in the background:

I really wanted to examine these flowers and photograph a few, but they were all out of reach! This was frustrating. I finally decided to cut one down. A nearby vacant lot had two agaves growing side by side.

One morning I walked over to the vacant lot and pulled one of the stalks over, bending it until it broke. I know this was trespassing and willful destruction of someone’s property, but I quickly contrived several convincing rationalizations.

I snipped off a flower cluster and took it back home, leaving the remainder to wither and die without having had the dim vegetative satisfaction of successfully setting seed. Doubtless the local javelinas which prowl the neighborhood at night will make short work of them.

Such an odd flower! There are no petals; the reddish tint seen from a distance is provided by the pistil and stamen stalks. The flower exudes a potent odor which attracts pollinators. Petals are superfluous when much of the pollination happens in the dark! These flowers are at the peak of their bloom. Notice the yellow pollen grains:

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that the agave seed pods were ripening. I was curious about the arrangement of seeds in an agave pod, but I was reluctant to pull down another woody stalk just to satisfy my curiosity.

A few days ago I was walking along a canyon slope overlooking Bisbee. I came upon one of the numerous old concrete house foundations which are so common around here. I have wondered how the inhabitants of the houses which presumably rested on these foundations accessed these aerie-like sites, as no access roads remain. Steps from below, perhaps?

This foundation is near the ridge-top, and the strong winds which sluice through the canyon evidently had toppled an agave growing from some concrete rubble. The seed-pods seemed to be still developing, so I concluded some connection to the disturbed roots had survived. The top of the stalk extended out of reach over the slope, but I managed to pull the stalk around so that I could cut off a pod-laden branchlet.

The pods are segmented into three chambers, and they average about 2-1/2″ long:

I cut a pod open and found these closely-packed seeds, hundreds of them in each pod. Most of the ripening seeds were black, but others were thinner and white. I suspect the white ones are unpollinated seed embryos:

The texture of the seed-coats was interesting, rather like pebble-finished leather:

I’m curious about the culinary potential of agave seeds. According to one source the Apaches made some use of ground agave seeds, although the major food produced from agaves was the starchy core mass roasted in pits.

Perhaps I’ll harvest and grind some agave seeds later this fall!




Filed under Arizona, Food, Natural History, Photos

5 responses to “Agave Flowers And Seeds

  1. Fascinating post! I have never seen the flowers at that stage, and never the pods except when they are dried out. The seeds seem surprising – not at all what I expected. Considering the number of seeds in the pods X the hundreds of agave growing on the steep hillsides around town, it is no wonder that there are baby agave all over the place! Once again, some great investigative reporting with excellent accompanying photos!

  2. Thanks, Bev!

    The seeds must drop out of the open pods during early winter. The pods split along the seams and open up, as you have seen. I wonder if wildlife make use of the seeds? I imagine rodents cache them.

  3. Joan

    Was intrigued both by the lovely pictures and your statement that the plants got pollinated at night.. Looked up the following:
    Was curious as to whether your Agave pollinators are bats, moths or both.

  4. Thanks for the link to the article, Joan!

    I suspect that both bats and moths pollinate the local agaves. There are colonies of bats living in abandoned mineshafts across the canyon,people tell me. Several times I’ve seen humming-birds working over the flowers during the day. A cooperative effort, perhaps, with both day and night shifts clocking in.

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