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Monday, March 31, 2014

Three-story cactus in Chase on the verge of blooming

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

After 53 years of marriage, Joyce Ward says Ed is one of those husbands who don’t give presents often.

But the ones he does give are doozies.

Take that plant he gave her for Mother’s Day 1976. She’d already given birth to three children by then and it was the first Mother’s Day gift he ever gave.

“I said, ‘What is it?’ I wasn’t sure what it was,” Joyce Ward said Friday.

“It’s a cactus,” Ed Ward said of the tiny plant.

But just like that plant in the Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” Ward’s plant began to grow.

And grow.

Each summer, she faithfully set it out on the family’s patio.

In the winter, she’d bring it indoors.

And, in the meantime, “I kept putting it in bigger and bigger planters until finally I said, ‘It’s not going in and out of the door again,’ ” Joyce Ward said.

Twenty years ago when Joyce issued the ultimatum, Ed took the plant to the Farley Machine Works, an oil field repair shop on the edge of Chase where he works as the shop foreman. The Rice County town, about 90 miles northwest of Wichita, has a population of 477 residents.

“He put it in one of those big lined things they make booze out of,” Joyce said.

A whiskey keg, Ed Ward said.

“I put that big old thing on wheels and rolled it in and out of the shop,” Ed said.

And he’d wheel it out of the shop during the summer and into the shop each winter.

The Wards estimate they’ve put the plant, a succulent native to the Mexico known as agave Americana or the American aloe, into 10 different containers over the years. The last one is an 8-foot-by-8-foot container built into a trailer that their grandson, Jaron Miller, made in his welding class at Chase High School.

By Ed’s calculations, the plant, trailer and soil weigh about 7,000 pounds now.

He seldom feeds it.

It is watered by Kansas rains — except last summer when he broke down and watered it a couple of times when he noticed the leaves beginning to shrivel.

In mid-March, the Wards began to notice a change within the plant.

“We left on a Friday evening and the plant was normal,” Ed said. “We came back on Monday morning and there was 4 to 6 inches of stem sticking out of the plant.”

After that, the stem grew about a foot a day. When it was 15 feet and 6 inches, Ed said they could no longer wheel it in and out of the shop. The door of the machine shop is 16 feet tall.

On April 14 — the night nearly 100 tornadoes touched down in Kansas — damaging winds came within three miles of Chase, but the plant remained safe. Ed had safely parked the plant on the north side of the machine shop and anchored the top of the stem with ropes.

“We just pray,” Joyce said. “There have been a lot of prayers said for that plant through this weather.”

A few months ago, the Wards began receiving national media attention for their plant. It was featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Since then, more than 900 people have stopped by Farley Machine Works located off U.S.56 highway at Chase, talked with Ed, taken photos of the plant and signed his guestbook. He estimates an additional 2,000 people have stopped and simply snapped pictures of the plant.

At last count, the plant’s stem measured 37 feet tall.

Any day now it is expected to bloom yellow and white flowers. The buds are the size of small bananas.

Some people have nicknamed the Agave Americana the century plant because it lives about 30 to 40 years, blooms, then dies.

Or not, Ed Ward said.

“It remains to be seen,” Ed said. “Some people say it will die; some people say it won’t. I think we just have to wait and see. I hope it will live.”

Joyce Ward says she’s grown fond of her present.

“He’s not a big present giver, let me tell you,” she said. “But the ones he gives, last.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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