Black and white line engraving of an agave americana in a pot, with three tall flower spikes with a profusion of flowers and spiky leaves beneath.
Image of Agave Americana from SGC RBK A.17

This strange-looking plant is an American Aloe, Agave Americana. It comes from a volume of Acta Eruditorum, a scientific journal published between 1682 and 1782. The Chapter Library holds 13 volumes dating from 1682 to 1731. It was first published in Leipzig, and aimed to provide abstracts of notable publications, often contemporary articles. Its articles are an eclectic mix of medicine, physics, mathematics, theology, geography, law, and history, and many are illustrated. Although the original articles were published in different languages, Acta Eruditorum translated these into Latin to make them accessible to scholars throughout Europe.

This illustration of the American Aloe, also known as the century plant or maguey, comes from a 1688 article in the form of a letter from William Zapf about the aloes growing in the garden of the Duke of Saxony, and specifically one which has just flowered. He says it was planted 17 years previously, and for the first 12 years of its life, it was small. It started to form one flower spike, then three, with two of them reaching 24 ft. The flowers were yellow-green, but became reddish-blond at the top. Dew collected on the flower, but it had scarcely been open one night before it began to rot. The smell was so bad that even strong and healthy men could not stand it.

Zapf’s description is reasonably accurate. The plant generally lives 10 to 30 years, and dies after it flowers. The flowering stalk may reach 25-30 ft, and the blossoms are yellow. However, he has exaggerated the smell of the flower. Although it has been described as ‘rather unpleasant’, there are no modern reports of men vomiting from the smell. It is native to Mexico and the southern US, where it is pollinated by bats who would be attracted to scent.

This page also shows how the ink from the illustration has transferred onto the rest of the paper, creating a mirror image due to the way it has been folded.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.