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How the Missouri Botanical Garden is helping save a critically endangered agave plant

Close-up of the Agave pelona plant. It has dozens of small buds, and some of them have bloomed into small burgundy flowers with 6 or so petals.
Kristina DeYong
Missouri Botanical Garden
The Agave pelona is monocarpic, which means it dies after it blooms.

The Agave pelona is indigenous only to one mountain range in Mexico. There are very few of this endangered agave left in the world — but two of them are housed at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Jared Chauncey stands next to a potted Agave pelona plant. Jared is 6 foot 3, wearing khaki pants and a green sweatshirt. The agave is taller than he is, at nearly seven feet. It has a spiky brush at the bottom and a tall stalk coming out of the middle that has small orange and yellow flowers at the top.
Kristina DeYong
Missouri Botanical Garden
Senior Horticulturist Jared Chauncey stands next to the Agave pelona for size reference. Chauncey is 6 feet, 3 inches tall.

MoBOT is on a quest to save the endangered agave, and it’s now in the midst of a concerted effort to do that. As Senior Horticulturist Jared Chauncey explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, each of its agaves will bloom just once before it dies. When it does, it’s time for scientists to spring into action, ensuring that the seeds are pollinated and can reproduce.

MoBOT has been waiting for its two agaves for decades now. But last month, the staff noticed one of the plants was flowering.

It was hard to miss.

“There was a spiky rosette, and when they flower, they send out a large shoot from the middle,” Chauncey said. “And while the plant is only about a foot tall, this flower spike is now over 6 feet tall.”

Chauncey said the plants are typically pollinated by hummingbirds or fruit bats, but at the botanical garden, it’s a different story.

“We are hand-pollinating it — we take the anthers of the pollen and pollinate it onto the female flower parts, and it will hopefully pollinate and we will get seed,” Chauncey said. “And then we can use the seed to grow to keep the genetics of this plant in the collection.”

Chauncey takes care of the arid, Mediterranean and subtropical plants at MoBOT. He said one of the agaves has been alive since the 1970s and another since the ‘80s, suggesting that they may be slower to bloom (and die) due to their location in a greenhouse.

Listen: Jared Chauncey on saving the Agave pelona

Chauncey said the second plant is even older than the first and will likely flower in a few years. He suggested the flowering Agave pelona had a few more months to live.

“They often start to slowly decline after they flower. And then, as they go through the ripening process, they'll decline further,” Chauncey explained. “They take a little longer to die if they actually set seed, but then once they set seed, everything is done, they'll be on their last leg, and then they'll kind of just peter out.” In St. Louis, it’s up to the scientists to make sure their seeds take root.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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