Conservatory's dying cactus leaves legacy

A child long lost and long forgotten is found, and returns home in time to spend Christmas at the side of a dying parent.

It would be a Hallmark holiday movie special if it involved people. But this is a story about cactus.

Seven years ago, Alex Boulton of Homeland bought a small agave at a plant sale held by Baltimore's Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park. It was a "pup," an offspring, of the enormous agave in the Conservatory's Desert Room.

"It was ugly and had a very long, protruding root," said Boulton. "Nobody else wanted it."

The ugly duckling thrived for Boulton, a history professor at Stevenson University and a gardener who has a fondness for succulents. But each fall, it became harder and harder to wrestle the spiky potted plant from its sunny perch in the yard back into the warmth of the bay window in Boulton's dining room.

The agave was just getting too big. And it wasn't happy. Every winter, another of its sprawling arms would shrivel and drop off.

"Over the years, we asked some of our friends if they had a place for it," said Wendy Noyes, Boulton's "significant other."

"Nobody was really interested," she said.

This week, however, Boulton opened The Baltimore Sun to read the sad account of that parent agave at the Conservatory. It had sent up its once-in-a-lifetime flower stalk at the wrong time of year, and a frost meant the plant would never bloom.

And since the agave, also known as a "century plant" for its long life, spends all its energy on that flower stalk, it would soon die. Worse, the plant had not produced any "pups" — plants that sprout under its skirt — to take its place.

But Boulton was sure he had one of those pups.

"I actually got up early to call the Conservatory because I thought lots of people would be calling to donate their plant," said Boulton. But he was the only one.

A photo he sent to Kate Blom, greenhouse manager at the Conservatory, confirmed that it was the same species as the 20-foot tall plant that was failing under her roof: Agave americana "Marginata," notable for the yellow trim on the edges of its green arms.

"It's the right one," said a beaming Blom.

She and her staff had waited patiently for their agave to flower since the stalk emerged in September. They'd even removed a pane of glass in the Conservatory roof to give the 30-foot stalk, which was practically growing as they watched, room to flower.

When the frost dashed their hopes, they prepared to watch the plant slowly fade and die.

Boulton's call changed the mood at the Conservatory. "This is just the perfect holiday story," said Blom.

It will be a few weeks before her team can retrieve the agave. Blom and her staff are busy preparing for the holiday poinsettia show and getting next spring's bulbs planted.

But soon the long-lost agave pup will be fetched from the weak sunlight in Boulton and Noyes' dining room to live out its own long life in the desert clime of the Conservatory.

It is a mother-and-child reunion of the most unusual kind.

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