The story of “The Octopus Cactus,” started from a little side shoot

February 9, 2017 | Doug Oster comments

If you happen to be walking through Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens and hear someone whistling, humming or singing, it’s probably indoor display foreman Curtis Pesanka, who is nearing his 24th anniversary working in the gardens. He’s standing in the Desert Room next to a giant plant children refer to as “The Octopus Cactus.”

Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It's Agave americana 'Variegata.' Children who visit the Desert Room refer to it as "The Octopus Cactus."

Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It’s Agave americana ‘Variegata’. Children who visit the Desert Room refer to it as “The Octopus Cactus.” Photos by Doug Oster Everybody Gardens


Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It's Agave americana 'Variegata'. The formidable hook like thorns were one of the reasons, the mother plant could not stay where it was growing.

Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It’s Agave americana ‘Variegata’. The formidable hook like thorns were one of the reasons, the mother plant could not stay where it was growing.

“It’s the star of the room, that’s for sure,” he says. “It’s not really a cactus though, it’s a succulent with the official name Agave americana ‘Variegata.’ ”
Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It's Agave americana 'Variegata'. The formidable hook like thorns were one of the reasons, the mother plant could not stay where it was growing.

Curtis Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens grew this huge agave from a small pup taken from a plant that had gotten too big for the space it was growing in. It’s Agave americana ‘Variegata’. The formidable hook like thorns were one of the reasons, the mother plant could not stay where it was growing.


He started the plant 17 years ago by removing a small pup from a mother plant whose long, sharp leaves were getting too close for comfort to visitors. The original plant wasn’t sited in the right place, which was no fault of those gardeners. There just wasn’t the amount of information about the agave that there is today.
“It’s eventually going to take up an 9-foot diameter space,” he says. “It has hook thorns at the end of every leaf, so it would really rip into your skin.”
Over the years, he would help cut off those leaves, which meant the plant was never going to achieve its true size, form and beauty. He was pained at the thought of removing a plant that had the potential to be there for three decades or more. He removed a side shoot (pup) from the mother plant and started growing it in the greenhouse in hopes it could replace the deformed original plant.
At one point, the mother plant was removed and the pup was put into place as a smaller plant. It’s now huge, reaching out at least 6 feet around and tall. A few years later, Pesanka added another smaller pup next to its bigger brother. These plants only bloom once and then die. Pesanka thinks the biggest of the two will flower in the next year or two. That’s why the smaller brother is planted right next to it, to take over when the larger agave flowers.
“I would love to see it bloom, but sad to see it perish,” he says.
He’s got a few smaller pups growing the greenhouse, preparing for their starring role in the room. “You have to plan ahead, knowing that’s what happens to those plants.”

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.