Christina George

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July 11, 2014
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Lookingglass gardener eager to witness towering cactus bloom

LOOKINGGLASS — The soil under her long fingernails didn’t seem to bother Karen Matney. Gardening and plants have been a part of the 71-year-old’s life since she was a girl growing up in New Jersey.

Walking through her home and around her rural property in Lookinglass, Matney pointed at various plants, too many to count, identifying each of the species as if it were second nature.

“They are beautiful. It’s nature,” she said, beaming with a smile. “It’s things God put on this earth. There’s no way he could do any better.”

But there’s one plant growing near the front of Matney’s house that has bewildered her.

In a sandy area she refers to as her cactus garden stands a plant that reaches so high toward the sky, you have to tilt back your head to see the top of it. It stands nearly as tall as the house.

“I didn’t even notice it until it got to 5 feet, and it kept getting fatter and taller,” Matney said. “It just shot up this year.”

The plant is an agave Americana cactus, a species often referred to as a century plant. Although it doesn’t take 100 years to bloom, it’s a rare sight because the plant will flower only once in its 25- to 30-year lifespan, said Oregon State University Extension Service horticulturist Steve Renquist.

“Initially, there was a belief that most of these plants needed to be in the ground for a hundred years and toward the end of their life they would shoot up and flower and then die,” Renquist said.

Buds are beginning to sprout from the plant’s branches. They haven’t bloomed yet, but the buds indicate the start of the end for the cactus.

Century plants are drought-tolerant natives to parts of Arizona, Texas and Mexico. The few that are in this area are intentionally put into the ground.

“Our climate is pretty suitable, a little wet in the winter but not too bad,” Renquist said.

Matney, who said she’s always liked the desert, started her cactus garden in 1988. The small ranch she and her husband, Jerry, moved to in 1980 wasn’t exactly the arid terrain with sandy soil, so the couple trucked in sand. She planted prickly pears, yuccas and jumping jacks, among other kinds.

A friend visiting from Arizona gave Matney a cactus to add to the garden.

“I didn’t even know it was a century plant. When I got it, it was this big, an itty-bitty thing,” Matney said, holding her hands 6 inches apart. “I just thought it was a cactus plant. I didn’t expect this.”

The plant never bloomed like those surrounding it, but it never died either.

Matney has maintained the property alone since the passing of her husband in 2001.

Recently, the garden’s yucca plants started growing taller and blooming white-yellow flowers. The yuccas grew to more than 3 feet before stopping. What didn’t quit was the plant given by the friend, which stands alone on the edge of the garden.

“I noticed it when it hit about 5 feet,” Matney said.

The stalk kept getting bigger at the base and taller, covered with dagger-like leaves.

Matney doesn’t know when the plant will bloom, but she’s overflowing with anticipation. The cactus couldn’t have picked a better year to bud beauty. The gardening tools have been put away for the last few years due to a bout of depression that drained Matney of her zest to be busy in the dirt.

The flower beds surrounding her home, the cactus garden and other areas of vegetation stretching across her property were left to be overrun by weeds.

This year, Matney said she needed a shift in her life and decided to spend more time outside doing what she loved.

“It’s been slow, but I am getting everything back to where I want it,” she said.

• You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at

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The News-Review Updated Jul 12, 2014 12:02AM Published Jul 12, 2014 09:57AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.