FAIRMONT — For Shirley Floyd Jenkins, the 22-year wait was worth it.
Last month, during a span of three weeks, she watched her Century Plant — a type of cactus that’s a member of the succulent family — shoot a stalk upward 30 feet into the air, competing with the nearby treeline. The first time she saw it, she mistook it for a telephone pole.
“I got dressed and went out there and I didn’t know what to think,” Jenkins said. “It just floored me because I just couldn’t believe that something could grow that fast.”
It was the moment Century Plant enthusiasts most enjoy, watching a stalk appear almost overnight and race skyward. For the majority of its life, the plant lays sprawled out, low to the ground — about 6 feet in diameter and 3 to 4 feet high with gray-green leaves — until it senses the conditions are ripe to produce blooms.
The Jack-and-the-Beanstalk sort of tale began when Jenkins inherited the plant from her cousin, Judy Grimsley Baxley.
“I can remember when I got it,” Jenkins said. “The only reason I can remember … is because my mother had just died … . I went over to my cousin’s house and she had this beautiful cactus and … she really attended to it because she cut all the dead pieces off. She gave me a cut-in. Being a cactus, I knew it had thorns, so I put it in the back of the yard.”
Jenkins’ backyard is meticulously manicured. Sunflower seed shells litter the mulched area, cast out after the birds have lunched. A bluebird that made its home in a nearby birdhouse looks down at Jenkins from atop the cactus.
“I always loved gardening because my momma did,” said Jenkins, who calls the hobby her salvation. “I couldn’t imagine a woman not having a pretty flower at her door.”
Today, as a small pond babbles in the background, crape myrtles sway in the breeze as a nod to her passion. On Einstein Road, her house is next door to the place she called home as a child. She built the home so that she would be available to care for her mother if she became ill.
In 1990, after her mother died, it was Jenkins’ own illness that would prevent her from gardening for a time.
“I hadn’t paid too much attention to (the Century Plant) because I hadn’t been in my yard,” Jenkins said. “I had breast cancer, but I’ve been free of it for five years … .The plant just lived on its own. It didn’t need any attention.”
The bloom of a Century Plant is not fully understood. It can live to be about half as old as its name implies and can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to bloom. Its overall appearance — an exaggerated stalk that looks like a life-sized asparagus with flowers like yellow broccoli— would look more comfortable in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.
Of all that is unknown about the plant, one thing is for certain: “Their whole life is geared for the final act,” Jenkins reads from an article. “And that is to produce seeds to germinate. Then, they die.”
Already, the leaves at the base of Jenkins’ plant are shrivelling. When the curtain finally closes on the final act, the Century Plant will leave offshoots at its base, repeating the growth cycle and maturing into next-generation plants.
“They say that if there’s one that blooms in the area, it’s contagious — so other ones might bloom too,” Jenkins said, referring to the plant’s ability to sense the correct conditions for germination. If the conditions are right in one area, other Century Plants in that area — if they exist — should begin to bloom as well.
So inspired by the sight of her Century Plant taking off before her eyes, Jenkins is offering cut-ins of her own. But since she didn’t want to include her address or phone number in this story, there is only one way to find her.
It shouldn’t be hard.