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Plant Highlight: Furcraea longaeva

April 2004

Furcraea is a relatively small genus (about 20 species) related to the Agaves (family Agavaceae).  Their distribution is shifted a little southward compared to the Agaves, going from central Mexico and islands in the Caribbean down to central South America. While some of the species can take a mild freeze, none can tolerate the low temperatures and extended freezes that the hardier Agave species can endure. In terms of size, Agaves range from huge down to miniatures that can be held in the palm of the hand; by comparison Furcraeas are all on the big side, and they may or may not develop a trunk, depending on the species. Like Agaves, they are monocarpic (that is, they die after flowering), and the inflorescences – or structures which bear the flowers – are quite impressive. In fact, Furcraea longaeva, our featured species, holds the record for the largest inflorescence ever recorded on a plant, with one specimen having been measured at an astonishing 13 meters in height. This is over 40 feet tall! In general, Furcraeas have leaves that are sword-shaped and somewhat pliable, as opposed to the thick and rigid leaves so often encountered in Agave. But the key difference is that Furcraeas have pendant flowers while Agaves do not. Furcraeas are very easy to propagate because they all produce lots of bulbils (small plantlets that arise on the inflorescence following the flowers). This character is present in a minority of the species of Agave as well. Furcraea longaeva is a southern Mexican species, occurring in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Puebla. An interesting feature of this plant is that the flowers and the branches that bear them are pubescent (fuzzy like the skin of a peach). While our specimen is nowhere near 40 feet in height, it does make quite a spectacle, and the dangling flowering branches make for a silhouette that is distinctive.