Agave Aggravation at the Italianate Glasshouse

Little survives of Sir Moses Montefiore’s East Cliff Lodge, a once magnificent mansion and garden straddling the boundary between Broadstairs and Ramsgate in Kent. The grounds of the former Gothic house, demolished in 1954, are now a public park providing valuable green space between the two seaside resorts. The only buildings that remain are a fairly unremarkable stable block and a particularly fine Italianate glasshouse. The grade II* listed structure, which along with other buildings is leased by an architectural practice from the local council, is a delight and quite unexpected in this otherwise leafy park. The delicate, curved outline of the glasshouse is beautifully fashioned from iron and bronze and glazed with ‘fish scale’ glass panes diminishing in size towards the top of the structure. There is nothing remotely Italian about the building, it just so happened that the garden created in front of it was centred on a fountain that Sir Moses Montefiore had imported from Italy. Therefore by association the structure was described as ‘Italianate’.

Today, the elegant Italianate Glasshouse is home to vines and succulents
Today, the elegant Italianate Glasshouse is home to vines and succulents

A prettier glasshouse on this scale it’s hard to imagine, but this year something extraordinary has happened to temporarily alter its elegant silhouette. A specimen of Agave americana, moved from a nearby properly about 40 years ago, has formed an enormous 30ft tall flower spike which is now blossoming. This has necessitated the removal of a handful of glass panes to allow the enormous stalk through, so as not to damage the rest of the historic structure. The result is quite breathtaking and has been drawing crowds from near and far.

The flower stalk of Agave americana has been deftly guided through a gap in the glass panes
The flower stalk of Agave americana has been deftly guided through a gap in the glass panes

The common name ‘century plant’ leads many people to suppose that Agave americana flowers only after 100 years, but this is something of a horticultural myth. In most instances plants have flowered by the time they reach 30 years old, making the Italianate Glasshouse’s plant pretty ancient, but not a centenarian. However, in this neck of the woods such details are overlooked in favour of a good press line. And, what’s more, the agave that’s flowering now has an identical twin, which must surely be due to flower soon. Speculation is rife.

Looking up at the flower spike through the fine glass roof
Looking up at the flower spike through the fine glass roof

The agave will die after blooming, but not before producing offsets which will one day provide entertainment to the future residents of East Kent. Waiting in the wings is a seven year old pretender which was cut away from the ageing agave before flowering.

The leaves of the ancient agave have grown long and lush in the protection of the glasshouse
The leaves of the ancient agave have grown long and lush in the protection of the glasshouse

For now though, plant spectators can enjoy this rare horticultural happening from the comfort of a specially created tea garden situated where Sir Moses’ Italian fountain once stood. There’s nothing American or Italian on the menu, just good English breakfast tea served from mismatched china, home made cakes and freshly baked scones accompanied by a rather unexpected view.

The Italianate Glasshouse is open to the public from 9am to 5pm until September 30th 2015.

The agave's canary yellow flowers are beginning to bloom this month
The agave’s canary yellow flowers are beginning to bloom this month