Agave americana

The aloès

‘ …the camellias are trees; you see in the gardens aloe flowers higher than a house …’ L’Archipel de la Manche, 1866

Agave americana in flower at Hauteville House in 1875, in the collection of Paris Musees (c)

Agave americana, or in French, the aloès, was and remains a speciality of Guernsey. The photograph above comes from the: collection of Hauteville House, and is annotated: ‘Aloe planted by P[aul] Chenay (Victor Hugo’s brother-in-law) in 1860, which flowered in 1875 and whose flower was taller than the house.’  It was in 1875 that Hugo returned for one week to Guernsey to retrieve his manuscripts from the Old Bank in the High Street, to which he had committed them for safe-keeping. Agave and similar plants, perhaps phormiums, appear in several of the photographs of the garden through the years. Agave americana is one of the plants that Déruchette keeps in her garden; Victor Hugo describes it as being a plant anyone in Guernsey can grow.


A commentator in 1838 remarked on a visit to Guernsey: 


‘The first thing people do on landing (after breakfast, by the way) is to get a horse and gig, or fly, and drive over the island. This is very commendable; for in the crooked narrow High-street, where you find yourself imprisoned, there is nothing whatever to be seen, except indeed Smith-street, another narrow alley running up-hill out of it. This soon leads you at an angle of 35° up to the College and Government-house, where there is a sentinel, and going on, to a most superb aloe, just about to blow, near the corner of the Grange-street.


It was impossible to pass this glorious flower, which had this summer, I conclude, shot up higher than the house of its owner, close to the door, (ground, is scarce here of course,) so I stopped my horse a moment to have a good look at it. It is quite the lion of the town; for except hearing a little French spoken in the streets, there is nothing that strikes one at first as different from any small town of our own in England.’


This was probably an Agave americana planted in the front garden of the town house of Admiral Sir James Saumarez, which was demolished and replaced with a church, in its turn demolished. it is now a public garden.


Agave americana in the garden at Hauteville House, by Arsène Garnier, in the collection of Paris Musées (click for link)