Greenhouse staff pushes past glass ceiling for Alice the agave plant

When Western Michigan University's Finch Greenhouse specialist Chris Jackson noticed a plant growing a little too close to the greenhouse roof back in February, he had no choice but to do something unbe-leaf-able: Remove a pane of glass from the ceiling and try to protect it from the cold Michigan weather.

Today, beyond the icy grip of winter, Alice the Agave americana plant commands attention as she readies herself for her grand finale. Standing proudly at an impressive height of 25 feet, Alice surprisingly took little to no maintenance—that is, until she began to bloom.

"It's not rare for it to flower where it's native," says Jackson. "But at this latitude, due to the temperature, it's much more rare and difficult for it to bloom on its own. That's why we've had to take so many special measures."

As she blooms, Alice will develop light green bulbs with white flowers extending from their peaks. The flowers only appear at the top of the plant, high in the air—but that doesn't make the view any less amazing.

To ensure Alice's well-being, Jackson constructed a protective setup using six-inch acrylic tubing, supported by sturdy lumber and sealed meticulously with heat tape. Only in mid-April did he finally dismantle this shield, wrapping Alice in frost cloth in order to protect her from the perils of a potential spring freeze.

The lifespan of Agave americana plants is inherently limited, with their demise following their blooming phase. This means that Alice's life is soon coming to an end. In fact, she's already begun dying.

"This is their life cycle," says Jackson. "They die as they bloom. It gathers energy to grow the spike, and once it does that, it puts all of its energy into flowering. Then it runs out, and it dies."

Before beginning to bloom, all Jackson had to do for Alice was soak the area of her roots twice a year, as she required very little water. But now he regularly heads to the roof every few weeks to check in on her and measure her height. During her earlier extreme growth period, Jackson was on the roof every few days; and soon, he will eventually be returning to the roof two or three more times as the flowers open to apply pollen to Alice's flowers.

"Normally, it's bats that pollinate these plants," says Jackson. "But the specific types of bats that pollinate these plants don't exist in this region, so in order to accommodate it, I've had to go up there and do it myself."

As she blooms, Alice will develop light green bulbs with white flowers extending from their peaks. The flowers only appear at the top of the plant, high in the air—but that doesn't make the view any less amazing.

After Alice finishes blooming, her removal process will begin. The flower branches will be cut off and placed in water for seed development. Her stalk will be cut off at its base and saved for future use, while the rest of the plant will be dug up and used for compost. The end of Alice's life is the beginning of another plant's growth.

Alice isn't Western's only Agave americana plant; there are three others settled right next to her.

"We have some exactly like Alice and then other variants of the plant as well," says Jackson. "So I don't see us getting another one for a bit of time."

Jackson's dedication to Alice and every other plant in the greenhouse is a testament to his passion for his profession. He was inspired during his time in his undergraduate degree and has remained deeply interested in ornamental horticulture and integrated pest management ever since. He has been at Western since 1996, marking 27 years of devotion to plant life.

"Who wouldn't love to work here?" says Jackson. "There's always something to do."

Alice is more than a local attraction: People from all over the region have come to gaze at her astonishing height, impressed by her survival past the unpredictable weather conditions. With the limited lifecycle of Alice, Jackson recommends visitors come as soon as they can. The Finch Greenhouse is currently open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and is located in Wood Hall.


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