Although it’s quite unusual for a single plant to garner bold-faced headlines around the world, The Royal Horticultural Society’s announcement that their prized Puya chilensis was about to bloom flashed across the Internet at lightening speed.
Nurtured in the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Wisley for 15 years, the 10-foot tall specimen attracted the attention of both professional and amateur horticulturists around the world. Flowering is indeed a rare event worthy of recognition and celebration. The National Botanic Garden of Wales Puya chilensis waited 11 years to bloom.
A member of the plant genus Puya, family Bromeliaceae, in the order Bromeliales, Puya chilensis is a terrestrial bromeliad native to the coastal Andes Mountain faces of central and northern Chile.
An evergreen perennial, Puya chilensis forms huge, dense rosettes of greenish gray, aloe-like like leaves edged with sharp hooked spines. Stems are thick and woody. Spreading by offsets, Puya chilensis, also known as Chagual or Puya, forms tight clumps. The leaves of P. chilensis are an excellent source of a fiber traditionally used to make fishing nets.
Extremely slow growing, cultivated Puya plants may reach flowering size in 5- to-7 years, although typically require 15- to- 20 years of growth before exhibiting 5- to- 10- foot tall flowering spikes supporting flower clusters with hundreds of spectacular inflorescent lime-yellow flowers up to 2 inches in diameter. Each individual flower contains over a tablespoon of nectar. The flowers only last for about a week. The nectar provides a rare treat for hummingbirds and bees that gravitate to its scent.
The outward pointed spiny leaves are Mother Nature’s way of preventing herbivores from reaching the center core of the plant. Sheep, other small mammals such as sheep, goats, cattle, rabbits, and rodents as well as birds and reptiles become entrapped in the spikes and die. Sciene tells us that as the animal decomposes the Puya plant gains nutrients: seem rather gruesome yet nature’s ways are often cruel.
Due to Puya chilensis’s ease of cultivation, drought tolerance and adaptation to most any soil condition, the hardy plant has a wide application in xerophytic landscaping. Used as an ornamental, Puya offers rugged symmetrical beauty and visual interest. In a domestic landscape, the plants “lust for blood” is satisfied with regular feedings or organic fertilizers such as worm castings, bat and bird guano and bone meal.
Although the plant is extensively dispersed throughout Chili, its population is challenged by fire. Due to Puya’s taste for sheep, Chilean shepherds search out the plant and set fire to them in order to protect the flock. Referring to the RHS Puya, Cara Smith, who attends the plant at RHS Garden Wisley said “We keep it well fed with liquid fertilizers as feeding it on its natural diet might prove a bit problematic.”
Yahoo News reports, “The Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley has been feeding the plant a diet of liquid fertilizer. “In its natural habitat in the Andes it uses its razor sharp spines to snare and trap sheep and other animals, which slowly starve to death and decay at the base of the plant, providing it with the grizzly equivalent of a bag of fertilizer,” reads a description on the RHS website, which adds that the plant emits a “gruesome scent.”
Visitors to the garden need not be concerned about the safety of their children. The famous plant is safely enclosed in the arid section of the Glasshouse with its deadly spikes inaccessible to children or sheep.
As a houseplant, puyas are easy to grow and fascinating to watch develop. They prefer a gravel type cactus soil, loose and quick draining and do best in a full sun location. Plant in a large pot with excellent drainage and place outdoors in a sunny spot. Puyas cannot stand “wet feet” and will quickly die if overwatered. When the weather cools, bring the plant indoors. In the United States, the plant does well out doors year-around in U.S. Plant Hardiness Zones 9 and above. The hardy plant can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Raising a Puya is rather like raising a child: after 15 or 20 years of love, care and attention one is reward with a moment of rare and exquisite beauty.
By: Marlene Affeld