Nova Scotia

Baby agaves carry on legacy of Halifax's most famous plant

Little agaves are sprouting in some Nova Scotia homes, tiny legacies of the Halifax Public Garden’s famous succulent that gained an affectionate following nearly two years ago.

Agaves only bloom once in their lifetime and can live for decades, so flowers are far off

Colleen Farrell's 'Lil Ava' is holding strong inside her Porters Lake, N.S., kitchen. (Submitted by Colleen Farrell)

Little agave plants are sprouting up in some Nova Scotia homes, the enduring legacy of the Halifax Public Garden's famous succulent that gained an affectionate following nearly two years ago.

Colleen Farrell was among those who stopped into the downtown garden to check on the plant after horticulturalists had to move it outside in the spring of 2018. Its asparagus-like stalk was growing at a rate of 15 centimetres a day, making it too big for its greenhouse.

Farrell's husband was in hospital at the nearby Victoria General and she used to wander over to check on the agave's progress. Bundled in burlap, it endured some sub-zero days.

At one point, there were worries the plant — which flourishes in arid and tropical environments — wouldn't make it until the warm weather hit.

"It got well below freezing at night that spring," recalled Farrell, who lives in Porters Lake, N.S. "It survived and I thought it would be neat to get a seed if they were going to give any away."

Some people were waiting for hours outside the Halifax Public Gardens in January 2019 and many left disapointed after garden staff distributed the 158 seeds. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

When word that was happening in January 2019 rolled around, Farrell was recovering from a knee replacement. She grabbed her walker and braved the long line on a frigid morning that wound down Spring Garden Road.

"I walked through the gardens and it was icy … but I was determined to get a seed," she said.

The seed was so tiny, she snapped a photo of it with her wedding rings for scale. But Farrell picked up some succulent soil and decided to try her luck with a clay pot.

Halifax Public Gardens staff said they spent weeks extracting seeds from the agave seed pods by hand. Colleen Farrell didn't expect hers to amount to much, but she wanted to try. (Submitted by Colleen Farrell)

Now a little sprig is growing in her kitchen. She's dubbed it "Lil Ava," a nod to the "Agave Maria" nickname of her plant's predecessor.

"I don't have a green thumb in my body. I like to say I'm all thumbs and none of them are green, and I didn't expect it to survive," she said.

"I'd like to keep it as long as I can … she's still hanging in there."

Agave americana are native to arid climates like parts of Mexico and usually live about 30 years. Often known as the century plant, agaves only bloom once. (Steve Berry/CBC)

Like Farrell, Justin Forbes of Cole Harbour, N.S., recently shared a shot of his plant when the Halifax Public Gardens asked on Facebook for an update on how the seeds are faring.

After his father volunteered to pick up the seed for him, Forbes turned to Google to research the best conditions. So far, it seems to be flourishing. About the size of a golf ball, Forbes keeps his plant under an LED light and doesn't water it often.

"I looked at [the seed] and figured I'd never be able to grow it and it ended up sprouting," he said. "I just really babied it every day."

Justin Forbes doesn't water his agave very often and he keeps it under an LED light. (Submitted by Justin Forbes)

Forbes isn't a stranger to growing uncommon things in his home, though. Gardening is his hobby. He manages the Facebook group Nova Scotia Greenthumbs, often helping people troubleshoot.

"It's kind of rewarding seeing something grow. You gave it life. And it's natural, it gets you off the cellphones for a minute, at least," he said with a laugh.

The agave wasn't his first foray in growing something associated with more temperate climates. Forbes has cultivated pineapples, limes and clementines. He has a lemon tree that is almost as tall as he is and he's hoping it'll bear fruit this summer.

Instead of discarding seeds, he dries them off, peels off part of the husk and with the help of a damp paper towel, they often sprout in a Ziploc bag. Dozens of his friends and family now have trees he started.

The 450-kilogram plant, affectionately nicknamed Agave Maria by some, became a bit of a downtown landmark two summers ago. (Steve Berry/CBC)

"Anyone can do it. You just have to Google a little bit, use the right soils, not overwater or underwater," he said.

Forbes has already started his peppers and tomatoes for this summer. He said a window sill with good light is often the easiest place to get a garden started.

"Inside side of our homes, it's a bit warmer. You can control the lighting. You can grow pretty much anything in your house. It's like having a pet really," he said.

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About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past 10 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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