Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Roof-busting bloom shocks curator of botanic gardens

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

For the anxious father it was months of waiting, watching and preparing -- then going away for two days and missing the whole thing. In the case of Nigel Brown's happy event, his "baby" is a 2m flower stalk flapping about in the wind over a 6m century plant. The stalk's explosive birth has trashed Brown's greenhouse.

The plant, Agave americana, has evolved to withstand the arid climate of Mexico. It can grow slowly over decades to an enormous size, then flowers just once. Its common name is the century plant because it was thought to flower only once in 100 years. Many British botanists have waited their entire professional lives to see one flower.

"I was dumbfounded when I came back on Monday and saw it," said Brown, curator of the Bangor University botanical gardens.

"It had grown 1.8m in the two days I was away, smashing straight through the glass, which after 28 years watching over it seemed a bit of a shock," Brown said.

The plant has now put on another 4m and is waving like a flagpole over the ruined roof of the glasshouse.

"We thought at first it was so shocked nothing more would happen, but it's as if it stopped, took a look around, worked out what to do next and then really went for it," he said.

It was a proud moment for Brown, who as a student in 1979 personally transplanted the "baby," probably about five years old, into the university's new display of cacti and succulents.

For a few years after he transplanted it, it sat quietly in its corner not doing very much.

As he graduated and eventually became boss of the botanic gardens where he had first been a student volunteer, it started to hurl out new leaves as thick as his arm, until it took over the entire south-eastern corner of the glasshouse.

In the next few weeks it will set between 100,000 and 1 million seeds. If the seeds were not meant to grow in the Mexican desert rather than the bracing sea air of north Wales, they could have turned the whole region into a cactus forest.

The plant -- and the publicity -- couldn't have come at a better time for Brown's beloved garden. Last year the university, concerned about the maintenance cost, discussed closing it, and it was only saved by a public outcry.

The gardener, however, was made redundant, which is why Brown rarely let his precious plant out of his sight.

What happens next will leave Brown struggling for scientific detachment. The plant, which saves all its energy for one explosive flowering, attracting insects, birds and even bats from miles around to scatter the seeds, dies.

"It is rather sad. Already the leaves have started to shrivel and eventually they will die completely, leaving only the flower stalk -- which is now as thick as my calf -- which could last for a few years but will eventually rot too," he said.

"We will of course be saving the seed and we have a few small plants ready, so we will obviously be replacing it -- but this time a little further from the glass," he said.

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