Puyas in the Garden’s South American Area

Puya alpestris ssp zoellneri

Towering over the Garden’s South American Area are three members of the genus Puya, which have a unique type of inflorescence. The genus Puya contains over 200 terrestrial bromeliad species ranging from Central America south through the Andes to Chile. These plants are adapted to thrive in extremely harsh conditions in the wild.

Like other bromeliads, they are monocarpic, meaning that the parent plant dies after blooming, although they generally produce pups from the base. The name puya is derived from an indigenous Mapuche word that means point, and if you’ve ever worked around puyas you know how treacherous it can be to encounter their spines!

There are 16 different kinds of Puya in the garden, though some are not yet large enough to be planted out from the nursery. They are mostly from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, with a few from Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador.

Former Garden Director Bob Ornduff explained the origins of the Garden’s Puya chilensis and P. berteroniana (now Puya alpestris ssp. zoellneri), in a 1990 Garden Newsletter stating, “I collected the seed that gave rise to these plants in Chile in February, 1983, from somewhat wizened parents that had flowered months previously. A little over seven years later, the next generation produced a marvelous display of flowers many thousands of miles away from home.”

California Scrub-Jay feeding from blossoms of Puya chilensis in the South American Area by Melanie Hofmann

Current Garden Director Lew Feldman explains a curious feature of the puyas,”Flowers pollinated by birds generally have no scent, but produce copious amounts of nectar as an inducement to attract and to reward pollinators. Additionally, bird-pollinated inflorescences (consisting of several to many individual flowers) often develop sterile outgrowths which serve as perches on which pollinators can alight, and thereby gain better access to the nectar, and in so doing, pollinate the flower. Perches often evolve to accommodate one type of bird, and are sometimes angled in such a way so as to facilitate the birds’ access to nectar. Here in the Garden we have a classic example of a bird perch, in the recently produced, spectacular Puya sp inflorescence.”

Just up the path from Puya alpestris ssp. zoellneri is another striking plant, Puya chilensis (pictured left). The striking chartreuse flowers are surreal and unforgettable. Like the striking metallic turquoise inflorescences of its relative, P. chilensis has very pronounced lateral branches which make for convenient perches for pollinators.

Blooming nearby is Pcoerulea var. intermedia, endemic to Chile and with blue-black or purple-black flowers it was collected by a former Director of the Garden, Dr. Robert Ornduff in 1983.

A Two Minute Film about Puya alpestris ssp. zoellneri

Anthony Garza, the Garden’s Supervisor of Horticulture & Grounds, examines the magnificent plant Puya alpestris ssp. zoellneri in a two minute film. These gigantic terrestrial bromeliads are quite dramatic in and of themselves but their flowers are unforgettable. The inflorescence is typically 2-4 meters tall with many side-branches. The lower part of each branch is densely packed with large flowers of an incredible metallic blue-green color, which contrasts strikingly with the orange pollen. Flowering time is spring with blooms lasting for several months.

Map to the Puyas in the South American Area

Click here to download a printable map and guide.