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Birney Imes: Alfred Walker's century plant puts on a show

 

Birney Imes

 

Saturday morning Wendell Rinehart and Alfred Walker were shooting the breeze in the den of Walker's ranch-style home on Martin Luther King Drive. Man cave might be a more apt description of the room, which sports a bar, shag carpet and a large glass table laden with glossy sports magazines. The wall-mounted TV was tuned to an ESPN NFL preview. 

 

The two men make an unlikely pair. Walker, 77, a retired legislator and educator, speaks with a calm assurance of a man who has wielded power. Rinehart, 54, in shorts and safari hat and exuding what appears to be boundless energy, could pass for one of those guys who pulls snakes out of logs or snapping turtles out the muck on a reality show. As it happens, Rinehart is a locksmith and woodworker. 

 

The two men met three years ago at Dry Creek Golf, a far-flung nine-hole, par-3 course off Pickensville Ferry Road near the Eka Noble plant.  

 

Rinehart laughs as he declares Walker his "daddy." The winner of their golf match-ups earns the name "daddy"; the loser is "the other feller." Rinehart has bested Walker on the links only once. They play three times a week. 

 

For several years I've admired the three magnificent agave plants in Walker's front yard. More than once I've stopped to inquire, but have never been able to get anyone to the door. Saturday morning when I phoned, Walker invited me over. 

 

They are called century plants for their supposed once-per-hundred-years flowering. Actually they bloom anywhere between 10 to 25 years and then die. The swan song of an agave is a magnificent thing to see. Over a period of several months the plant puts up a 20-to-30-foot stalk before it blooms and expires. Not only does it release seeds, the plant leaves "pups" in its wake. They become the new plants. 

 

About two months ago one of Walker's plants began to bloom. So far the succulent has sent up a 20-foot stalk. Walker has tethered to a stake in his front yard.  

 

Also known as agave americana or American aloe, the slow-growing plant is majestic at maturity reaching six feet in height and as much as 10 feet in width. The agave requires full sun, little water, and its gray-green spires are wickedly sharp. A honey water can be extracted from the stems from which a fermented alcoholic drink called pulque is made. Tequila is made from the blue agave found near the city of Tequila, Mexico. 

 

A friend gave him the plants when Walker served in the Legislature (1988 through 2000). 

 

Walker's plants, conspicuously placed on either side of his driveway, have invited numerous impromptu visits. An Alabama woman stopped and asked for a section of the plant to use in treating a skin rash on her daughter. A group of Mexicans wanted a piece to use as seasoning for some meat they were cooking. They returned with a sample. 

 

After the former legislator posed for a picture, we stood in his front yard and talked. Walker spoke of graduating from Louisville Colored High School in '55, playing football at Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs and then earning a masters in management and biological science. He taught in the Columbus and Lowndes County schools for 28-1/2 years.  

 

Walker said he never had political aspirations, but was urged to run instead of taking the principal's job at a historically all-white high school. He doesn't regret the decision. 

 

"Very seldom do you have an opportunity like that," he said about his stint in the Legislature. 

 

One could say the same thing about seeing a century plant in bloom. While Walker's century plant hasn't yet fully bloomed, what it has done so far is impressive and worth seeing. To get there drive out Military Road; when you reach the Lion Hills golf course, turn right onto MLK. Walker's house is on the right. You can't miss it. 

 

Apologies to Shirley Andrews who I called Shirley Harris in last week's column. Shirley has a nursery on Shady Street and sells plants at the Hitching Lot Farmers' Market. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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