Puya: Unearthly Delights in the Garden
"What on earth is that in the garden?" It looked so alien! I ran to get my husband, and we both just stood there with our mouths open staring at a 4' spike of metallic teal blooms with bright orange anthers.
This was well before google and mainstream internet, so my research involved the tedious page turning of my Sunset Western Garden Book . Finally, there it was: Puya alpestris, a rare plant, native to the Andean slopes of South America. Here was the proof that it hadn't come from another planet!
The bromeliad family:
The puya is a member of the Bromeliacea family of which there are over 3,000 varieties. Some thrive in the world's tropical rainforests where they attach to the bark of trees with their aerial roots. These epiphytes, easily rooted, have been adapted to grow as house plants, including the colorful guzmanias and tillandsias. Distantly related to the pineapple, many are naturally terrestrial and prefer to grow in well-drained soil like the dyckias and puyas which are treated as succulents.
The characteristic reverse barbed leaves:
The puyas of So. America:
The largest bromeliad in the world is native to the lower slopes of the Peruvian Andes and Bolivia. Puya ramondii is known as "the Queen of the Andes" reaching 30 feet in height. This unique towering torch of white flowers, rarely seen outside its natural environs, is slow-growing and takes on average, 100 years to produce a flower. This plant is also monocarpic, meaning the whole plant dies after the bloom is spent, leaving only its seeds for posterity. It's no wonder we don't see it in botanical collections throughout the world!
Puya chilensis , a more practical horticulture specimen for display, grows to 10 feet and has a spectacular spike of yellow to lime green flowers. The huge rosettes of barbed strappy leaves are dangerous to animals and humans alike. This species is often referred to as the "sheep-eating plant" because of its reputation for ensnaring wandering livestock and other unfortunate victims within its spiny clumps. The plant derives mineral rich nutrients from the decomposing flesh and bones as a means of survival.
The non-petaled parts of Puya beteroniana are more silvery gray than that of Puya alpestris. A whitish coating is a natural attribute. The leaf undersides of P. alpestris are silver. The leaf tops and other plant parts are light green.
Among the candle-type puyas, the best for backyard landscapes in suitable climates, are Puya beteroniana at 6 feet with turquoise flowers and Puya alpestris "sapphire tower" at 4 feet with a deeper teal bloom. These are native to southern Chile and Argentina. Both are considered succulents and are well suited to xeriscape garden designs. Each prefers a well-drained soil and can tolerate hot, dry climates with winter dips to 18 degrees F.
Propagation and care:
These plants can be grown from seeds as well as the off-shoots or "pups" which form at the base. It takes 6-8 years before flower formation. Although drought-tolerant, these plants can handle ample water if the soil drains well. They can grow both in containers or planted directly in the ground; however, I've found greater success in the garden bed. If using a pot, a cactus soil w/ a blend of sand is best. Resistant to most pests and diseases, it is possible to see some scale or mealy bug now and then. The best approach is to respond early by scraping off the scale from the undersides of leaves w/ a fingernail and treating the mealy bug w/ a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. An annual application of a slow release organic fertilizer like calcium-rich bone meal or a pellet-form like Osmocote is the most you'll need.
In landscape designs these blend so well with agaves, aloes, and kniphofias with their beautiful orange spiky blooms. The lovely blue-green fingers of senecio mandraliscae and the bright red-orange pencil-like foliage of euphorbia tirucalli are nice compliments too. The purplish-black rosettes of aeonium and low spreading sedums can add textural interest and contrast. Consider companions with similar growing requirements. Be creative!
When handling thorny plants like puya, protective gloves are essential:
In my own garden where this plant existed when we moved in over 25 years ago, it co-exists with bearded irises and succulents. I'd love to divide it but don't dare in its tight space. Moving this plant is serious business because of its razored edge barbs. I'd suggest heavy cordura nylon gaiters and gauntlet gardening gloves. Snake Armour hunting overalls would be good too if working with a large plant!
Indigenous people used the fibrous leaves for making ropes and nets. The heart of the torch-like flower can purportedly be cut up and eaten with lemon and cilantro. Bees and moths enjoy the pollen-rich anthers, and the hummingbirds rest on the puya's natural perches while collecting nectar from the velvety flowers. I sigh at its beauty when we have a blooming event and once again marvel at nature's ingenuity.
The Dance of the Puya
This past year, my husband and I documented the 5 week blooming process from onset to completion and put it to music. Here is the video: