The Kiss Of The Killer Agave
By Shelley Eades
Have you ever had something surprise you with a completely different narrative than what you’d expected?
I’ve got an Urban Farmgirls story for you which involves a backyard in Potrero Hill, the movement of the sun, a blossoming agave, fish in a pond, and a woman well versed in art history.
Last week Urban Farmgirls Founder, Tina Calloway, and I stood in the garden of one of her long-time clients during our weekly maintenance service. Lynne Rutter’s backyard is different than most I’ve seen in the city. The passion guiding her green thumb is showcasing unusual plants. It’s a family thing, it seems. Lynne’s father was a surfer enamored by tiki culture, with a penchant for collecting exotic tropical plants, many of which are now transplants in her garden. Lynne’s brother, who works in the orchid business used to collect carnivorous plants like Venus Flytraps.
When entering the side-gate to her backyard, my eyes are immediately drawn to about twenty beautiful staghorn ferns hanging at eye level and higher on a redwood fenceline. Tina designed it with this in mind to give Lynne the freedom to rearrange the ferns as she pleases along horizontal slats in the wood.
Toward the end of the walkway, the garden opens up to an exotic mix of plant life, a vibrant little pond, and hundreds of air plants, growing in trees and bushes, on lawn furniture, and rocks. The rarity of seeing so many air plants thriving outdoors in San Francisco gives off an ere of otherworldliness -imagine a visual concoction of Alice in Wonderland and pre-historic reverie. San Francisco’s climate provides just enough fog and moisture for air plants to thrive in filtered light. Given the right conditions, air plants are happy indoors and out. View Air Plant Flutes and Sconces in our online boutique.
In talking with Lynne, who specializes in ornamental restoration, particularly from the Victorian era, it’s not hard to make the connection between artistry and gardening. While some art lovers flock to the Lurve in Paris for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, you’d be much more likely to find Lynne at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence studying the elaborate ceiling decor, rather than pursuing artwork below. She is one of a handful of artists in the world specialing in this line of work.
When I ask Tina about her work at Lynne’s over the past two years, she points out how much she values the rare creative flow this collaboration reflects in the design of the garden. One of the goals was to design the landscape as an extension of Lynne’s living space. The final result includes a whimsical staircase that opens into the garden with custom iron handrails handcrafted by Bayview artist Derek Castro at 1770 Workshop. He also makes the metal stands for our Bespoke Tablescape Collection.
Last fall not far from those steps, an agave Atttenuata formed a small spike that grew into a blossom. Native to Mexico, this phenomenon rarely happens in San Francisco, as the plant needs dry heat and a massive dose of sunshine to bloom. The common name for this agave is the century plant because it takes years to bloom (it succumbs to its death shortly thereafter). Lynn, Tina, and the Urban Farmgirls team had been keeping track of the unusual bloom as it grew nearly six feet high. It continued to follow the sun so religiously that it then curved south-west, eventually morphing into a swan neck shape with its spiked tip growing down toward the pond. They decided not to cut it out of pure curiosity about what it might do next.
Though created to lure in bats to feed on pesky mosquitos, Lynn’s pond serves more like a birdbath of sorts, attracting a variety of small birds, bees, floating plants, algae for her fish, and even hawks and snakes. “I don’t know why more people in urban areas don’t have ponds in their gardens,” she said, “it attracts so much life which in turn has the benefit of a more vibrant, pollinated garden.”
In any case, this peculiar agave, which is loosely known to bloom once every hundred years, was bestowing its nectar on bees, hummingbirds, and little finches via thousands of small yellow blossoms.
An agave blooming into a beast like this is alluring. Lynne took pictures regularly and posted them on social media, fascinating her friends and family. Our Urban Farmgirls team watched and waited, making weekly maintenance rounds as it pointed it’s tip down in a way that nearly gave the appearance of deliberately zeroing in on the pond below. It over-powered everything around it and seemed to have a personality of its own. “That agave must have been really freaking happy in that garden to bloom like that!” Tina recalls.
One day Lynne walked into her garden and was shocked at what she discovered. The pond was now clear -all plants, algae, and fish had all been wiped out, dead. A sticky sap beaded up on the stones around it. The spike had kissed the water’s edge. This had happened in less than forty-eight hours since her last venture into the yard. Tina remembers Lynne's phone call a few minutes later, “Tina! You’ll never believe what just happened....”
Being that Lynne loves history, she didn’t let the story end there. Upon digging into a little research, she learned that the sap from this particular agave is very poisonous to small creatures and foliage, cyanide of sorts, which she had not at all expected.
Native Americans used this plant to their advantage by dipping their arrow tips into the sap, as well as using it to poison waters, then harvesting the fish that died instantly and floated to the top. It turns out that while it’s toxic to small creatures and might make a dog or even a small child sick to their stomach, it’s not strong enough to poison the average-sized human and only acts as an irritant to the skin. Due to the shape of its bloom, the agave Atttenuata is also commonly referred to as the foxtail, lion's tail, dragon-tree, and swan's neck agave.
This week at Lynne's, I was thrilled to spot a new little school of fish in her pond. She'd ordered a batch by mail which had just arrived. They look so happy swiveling through the algae and darting under lily pads. A few unassuming pups from the infamous Agave Atttenuata bask sleepily in the sun nearby.
Several plants in California are poisonous, but far more have holistic benefits and make for sumptuous edibles as well. One of our favorite books in Urban Farmgirls' library is an excellent guide for local plants in the San Francisco Bay Area. We highly recommend reading The Bay Area Forager by Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein, to learn more about the marvels of local plant life.
Have an interesting plant life story? I've love to hear more! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Lynne Rutter
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