Stuck forever in the earth, plants lead a dull life. They have beauty but no romance, purpose but no fulfillment, their days so predictable an almanac can map them months in advance. And yet, every now and then, plants can yield mystery.
The mystery in Betty Mitchell’s backyard near Selma stands about 10 feet tall. In May, a thick stalk started growing from the middle of the spiky plant, first looking like giant asparagus and now like the branches of a tree in some magical forest. Mitchell’s Texan neighbor told her it was a century plant, an agave-like plant that doesn’t quite live to see 100 but can thrive for several decades. Mitchell’s is pushing 50, but when the century plant blooms, it dies, and the spikes at the base of Mitchell’s plant had already started to brown and wither when a reporter visited earlier this summer.
The century plant’s odd life was all news to her, she said. To her, it’s her mother’s plant, plucked from the Texas desert in 1974 by Mitchell’s brother-in-law.
“My momma saw this plant and loved it and wanted it, so my sister’s husband got the plant, wrapped it in newspaper and put it in her suitcase, and she brought it back with her,” Mitchell said.
The plant lived at Mitchell’s mother’s house on St. Stephens Road for three decades until a stroke in 2002 forced her to move in with her daughter. They brought the plant with them, not for any great sentimental reason, Mitchell said, but because it was unusual, and they liked it.
“We didn’t know what kind of plant we were going to have and just stuck it in the backyard,” Mitchell said. “And it’s been sitting there all these years, and it hadn’t done anything, until this year.”
After 50 years of dormancy, perhaps lulled by the winters of North Carolina, the plant finally started blooming in early summer, beginning the end of its life cycle. A tall, thick stalk inched its way from the middle and soon unfurled its blossoms like a tropical bird spreading its wings.
“I don’t know what I expected really, but it wasn’t exactly what I got,” Mitchell said. “But you take what you get. It is pretty, I mean. What in the world kind of blossom would you call that?”
The plant’s spikes, Mitchell said, demand respect and care when mowing, each at least a foot long, sharp and sturdy.
“If you’d get close, you’d get stuck,” Mitchell said. “In the summertime, I have to put something around it to keep the grandkids away from it.
Those grandkids likely won’t continue the plant’s legacy. A granddaughter at the house said she wasn’t that impressed by the plant, except its height, and lamented it being yellow, not pink.
“My sister said to save some seeds, and I said, ‘Paulina, I’m not going to save no seeds,’ ” Mitchell said. “ ‘I’m 70-something years old and so are you. We ain’t going to live that much longer; we won’t ever live to see it bloom again.’ ”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson