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Century plant reaches for the sky

Bessie Thigpen has quite a few plants growing around her yard on Perry Street, but none are quite like her century plant.

Towering at about 30 feet tall, the century plant — also known as the American agave — is now starting to bloom. After it does bloom, the plant will die, but it produces shoots at its base, which continue its growth.

“A lady from Columbus, Miss., asked me how tall it was when I planted it,” Thigpen said. “I showed her a plant on my porch (about two feet tall) and told her it was about that tall when I planted it.”

The plant is also called the American aloe, although it is in a different family than true aloes. If the flower stem is cut without flowering, a sweet liquid called agua miel — Spanish for “honey water” — gathers in the heart of the plant. This can be fermented to produce a drink called pulque, which may be distilled to produce mescal. Tequila can also be made from a different species of the plant called tequila agave.

“Alvin Seales had one, and it bloomed and had some little ones,” Thigpen said. “He brought me one, and that came from one that I had given him. He told me his had reached 60 feet high.

“There are a lot of different things they make with it, like soap and string. I’ve had a lot of people come by and ask me, ‘When are you going to make some tequila?’ I said, ‘Well, if you give me the recipe, we might try it!’”

Towering over Bessie Thigpen’s house, the century plant is on the verge of blooming for the only time in its 20-plus-year life. An unusual plant in size and substance, it is one plant that gets noticed very easily.