A most incredible flower

Havard agave, Green Gulch in Big Bend National Park

I first came to know what today I believe is the most beautiful and incredible flower of the Chihuahuan Desert, when I worked in Big Bend National Park as a park ranger.   Just days after I arrived, right outside the front door to the Panther Junction Visitor Center, was a huge century plant in full bloom.   Large yellow panicles covered with dozens of 3-4 inch flowers, grew from alternating side branches.  The flower stalk easily reached over 10 feet tall and was at least as thick as a baseball bat.  The melon sized panicles were covered with nectar rich yellow flowers and if you spent time standing there you could identify dozens of different animals visiting the flowers.   Nearly two dozen bird species were regulars including Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Lucifer Hummingbirds, Scott’s Orioles, Cactus Wrens and all kinds of bees and other insects.    Because so many species were attracted to the flowers many of us nicknamed the century plant the cafeteria plant of the desert.  

Over time I observed how even after the flowers died the plant was still important to many desert species like the Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  Often times I would see these woodpeckers moving up and down the dying stalk looking for insects and then in future years, if the dead plant was still standing, peck out a hole in the stalk and build a nest.    If after the woodpecker was finished living there and the stalk remained intact, the hole it built might also become a nesting site for an Elf Owl.

Mexican long-nosed bat feeding on century plant flower. US. Fish and Wildlife Image.

Of all the animals associated with the century plant one of the most notable are the nectar feeding bats of the Chisos Mountains.  When I worked in the park I met Joe Kuban who was a park researcher studying the only known Mexican long-nosed bat colony in the US.  All summer long Joe would watch for the bats feeding on century plant flowers at night with a flashlight.   I recall him telling me that on one night he counted as many as 200 bat visits per minute to one of the plants he was observing.   When I asked him how he made the count he said that the bats would approach the plant from the bottom and then fly up the stalk towards the flowers.   All he needed to do is point a light at the stalk and then count bats flying by.

Joe Kuban in the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park studying century plant pollinators.

Last November Loren K. Ammerman, a Professor of Biology at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas presented a paper on the Mexican long-nosed bats at the Chihuahuan Desert Conference hosted by the Zoo.  She reported that the population in Big Bend was very stable and that census results were averaging 2062 bats during the summer months. 

There are eleven species of agave in Texas. The gigantic Havard Agave (Agave havardiana) is one of the most visible icons in Big Bend National Park, but the most numerous in the park and elsewhere in the Chihuahuan Desert is lechuguilla (Agave lecheguilla).

Lechuguilla in Big Bend National Park with the Sierra del Carmens and the Maderas del Carmen
protected area in the distance.

Photos 1, 2, 4 and 5 by Rick LoBello

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