April 11, 2005


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Curator?s Comments

by Gary Lyons, Curator of the Desert Garden

This has been one of the wettest winters ever (34.8 inches in LA at USC and 54.4 inches at the rain gauge across from the Pasadena City Hall, the wettest in Pasadena history). The Desert Garden ?weathered? the heavy rain without major damage. We were not without losses, however. The large Euphorbia ingens east of the Conservatory toppled and was reduced to cutting material for future plant sales. E. ingens damaged the very rare and recently planted Aloe mawii, which was just coming into flower. It?s not all bad news for the aloe, however, for we now have 3 robust cuttings of  Aloe mawii, which we will plant elsewhere in the African section.

The single stemmed aloes, such as A. ferox, A. marlothii, and A. spectabilis do not have sufficient root mass to remain upright in supersaturated soil. Fifteen of these tall plants toppled in the recent rainfall. Most single stemmed aloes are too heavy to reset, so we continue our practice of  re-rooting the top three feet or so of the stem. The trunks are discarded as they do not generate offsets. The heads usually root within two years. If these aloes were as sturdy and deep rooted as palms, most of the single headed aloes  would be 80 feet or more tall! Most were planted 1920-1968.

In addition two golden barrels rolled over and these were replanted. Across from the pincushion rockery, a Pithecellobium, a small desert tree from Mexico, fell over and had to be removed.  At the bottom of the garden, below the patio, we lost a large specimen of Yucca filifera. If you ever wondered why there are old specimens of Y. filifera at the very bottom of the Desert Garden and along the base of Raymond fault scarp, it is because Hertrich planted them around the water reservoir. The Desert Garden was expanded into this site in 1925.   An odd choice for a border planting that surrounds a pond. Next to the antique Euston Gate, we lost two oaks.

Last September we retained a consultant to give us advice on stabilizing the giant Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) in Bed 6. It is one of the largest specimens in cultivation in North America and one of the earliest extant acquisitions (1912) in the Desert Garden.  For some time we have been concerned about limb breakage and public safety. His advice: since some of the branches are close to paths, the immediate area should be closed to the public until we can trim branches that would lighten the weight on the crown. We may do additional bracing as well. This we will do during the dry season.


by Phil Skonieczki, Huntington Docent and Volunteer

What huge agave has the stoutest, thickest leaves of all?  The answer is Agave mapisaga var. lisa near the antique Euston gate and Succulent Circle, in the SW corner of the Desert Garden.  In the next few months visitors to the lower garden will have a chance to witness a rare and spectacular flowering event, rivaling the blooming of last year?s ?white?-leaved agave, Agave franzosinii in the Heritage Garden and the giant just finishing its bloom east of the sycamore trees.  Our giant agave, A. mapisaga var. lisa, has started to shoot its asparagus-like flower stalk skyward.  We first noticed it on January 20, 2005, when the emerging inflorescence was about one foot above the upper leaves.  By February 17, it was about seven feet above the upper leaves, growing at the rate of about 1 1/2 feet per week.  By April 10, it had begun branching. In 1978, 27 years ago, the original agave was moved from Block 20 to the present location and what you see today are two offsets of that plant.  The records show the acquisition of sixty seeds or seedlings on January 25, 1933, labeled ?Maguey Lisa? from a nurseryman, Ferdinand Schmoll, of Querétaro, Mexico.  The sole survivor was recorded as acquisition HNT 3633 in the then-recently established Accession Catalogue established by Eric Walther.  Walther began numbering plants that started with ?A? and descendants of the plant #1 are the colonial Agave celsii var. albicans to be found in the lower garden.*

[*This project was undertaken early in Walther?s career.  He went on to be a director of the Strybing Arboretum and one of the world?s foremost authorities on echeverias.]

Agave mapisaga var. lisa may have flowered for the first time in 1950?there is a picture of William Hertrich dwarfed by a maguey plant with its massive inflorescence.  The noted agave specialist Howard Scott Gentry believed this plant to be a giant form of the pulque plant Agave mapisaga that grows in the highlands of  Mexico City?s Valley of Mexico at 5,000 to 8,000 feet. For centuries, to maximize production of pulque, A. mapisaga and other agaves were probably selected for large size.  Variety lisa is approximately 25 percent larger, making it the largest of all agaves with leaves perhaps one foot thick at their bases.  In 1966, Gentry described it as the largest with the type plant being one in the Desert Garden?s Block 20.  His monograph on agaves, published in 1982, shows his pith helmet perched on one of the leaf tips for size comparison.  By the way, ?lisa? is Spanish for ?smooth,? a reference to the texture of the leaf surfaces.

When Gentry returned to the highlands of Mexico to look for this agave, he could not find it and concluded that it must have come from a small clonal group of unknown location.  He also concluded that it could have been selected and cultivated for its high yield of pulque.  The value and rarity of many of the Huntington?s unique specimens have become clear in recent years.  It is not really in cultivation, but exists in a few gardens.  Joe Clements, previous Desert Garden curator, believes an offset may have gone to the Phoenix Botanical Garden and that Gentry may also have taken some specimens to his nursery in Murietta and Phoenix.**  Gentry laments that Phoenix is a poor place for the large pulque agaves.  There they are stunted, sunburned, and grow poorly.  He states these highland species reach gigantic sizes in the mild climate of the Huntington, since our latitude tends to emulate the high altitudes of the lower latitude found at Mexico City. Gary Lyons believes some are at the Los Angeles Zoo and at the Rancho Mission Viejo.

Each giant rosette of leaves of the plant Agave mapisaga var. lisa blooms in about 25-35 years, and the tree-like flower stalk does not produce bulbils.  Thus there are very few opportunities to view an inflorescence.  The last opportunity in the DG was ten years ago.

So take a walk to the bottom of the Desert Garden and seek out the easy-to-find gigantic plants.  Take time to look up and admire the unfolding spectacle.

Agave Serendipities of the Desert Garden

by Joanne Gram, Huntington Docent

On Members' Night in June, 2004, we spotted a tall, branched agave inflorescence with a "lily"-like structure at the very top.  The so-called "lily" was pinkish, and from the ground resembled a lotus flower bud.  On the stalk below the flower were five bracts of the same pinkish color.  A few days later Gary Lyons, Desert Garden Curator, took pictures while perched on a tall, tall ladder supported by four men.  He said the so-called "lily? is actually a closely set cluster of bracts at the tip of the inflorescence.  Colorful floral bracts are rare in agaves. This first agave was located east of the lower patio.

Then on First Thursday, July 1, 2004, another agave, a similar species, was found with a very similar inflorescence--branched, thick-stemmed, tall with several "lilies" at the top, and at least two significant projections?sepals or bracts coming off the main stem, which was curved at the bottom for both agaves.  Our Cactus and Succulent Society Show visitors were thrilled. 

The second agave was flowering  in the north-eastern section (the Raymond fault scarp) visible from the new Heritage Garden and in front of the "Australian Weeping Willow" (Pittosporum phillyreioides). This agave is similar to the one below but the flower stalk was thicker. In addition it had thickish branches at the top and the uppermost ones looked like "lilies."  The one in the lower garden had one lily-like structure at the top.  The"heavy-dutiness" of the whole inflorescence contrasted sharply with yet another agave with bright red-orange buds situated nearby. Animals enjoyed this two-toned agave with red buds and yellow flowers--squirrels, a woodpecker, an oriole and hummingbirds visited it.

Well, Gary Lyons says that in 1976 (!) he planted the red-orange budded agave (we should call it a bi-colored agave) growing in Bed 37 on the west side of the Heritage Garden.  This agave bloomed fairly rapidly.  Before the flowers opened, the buds were red-orange and after opening the flowers were a rich yellow.  The metal tag says Agave sp. which means agave of unknown species.  Gary says he may be able to pin down the identification. The Huntington?s collection of agaves contains many more species than other botanical gardens.   Many are of unknown or hybrid origin and may be difficult to identify.

At the bottom of the Heritage Garden is the gigantic "white-leaf" agave, Agave franzosinii which has a lush and wonderful inflorescence. This agave plant has completely shriveled up now, but its flowers were so lush, with very long stamens, that the orioles and other birds were lost from sight in the flowers gathering nectar.  Its adjacent twin may be blooming soon.

A  giant pulque agave (A. hurteri) with a very tall flower stalk is finishing its bloom--just east of the big sycamore and below the African section.  AND a gigantic agave, at the extreme southwestern corner of the Desert Garden, is now putting up a tall flower stalk (see above story on Agave mapisaga var lisa.)


Puyas are in Bloom, Week of April 10


The Huntington Botanical Gardens probably have more species of puya bromeliads from the Andes than any other institution.  We have plants from the Myron Kimnach collection and the T. Harper Goodspeed collection.  Watch for tall flower stalks, some with side-projecting bird perches:  Puya alpestris--turquoise ones, Puya venusta--pink-stemmed dark royal blue ones, Puya chilensis--tall yellow ones, blooming in the Heritage Garden, also along the main road to the lily ponds, and at the bottom of the Desert Garden.  Many of the puyas began blooming in March, and this week many are having their best bloom.

Puya alpestris
Puya venusta
Puya chilensis


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