Why is RBG hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Alex Hen­der­son star­ing so in­tently at this bloom on a Puya Chilen­sis plant?

Colum­nist and avid gar­dener Kathy Ren­wald re­veals all

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - KATHY REN­WALD

A bash­ful bloomer is flow­er­ing for the first time in 31 years at the Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens Mediter­ranean Garden.

It’s called Puya chilen­sis, but those who know it, the peo­ple of the An­des in Chile, call it the sheep-eat­ing plant.

“It’s one of the most bru­tal plants we work with in the green­house,” gar­dener Kath­leen Hutch­e­son says, “we put on two coats for pro­tec­tion.”

The leaves of the puya plant have spiny thorns and run in two di­rec­tions. Put a paw or a wing or a hand in the leaves and it’s caught like a knit sweater on Vel­cro.

It its na­tive habi­tat on arid Chilean hill­sides, the puya is a slow bloomer too, pro­duc­ing a flower only after 20 years. So to see it bloom in a green­house at the RBG, well, it’s a once in a life­time ex­pe­ri­ence says Alex Hen­der­son, Cu­ra­tor of Col­lec­tions at RBG.

“I worked at Kew Gar­dens in Eng­land and it never flow­ered there, I’ve been fa­mil­iar with this plant for 20 years and never seen a flower.”

At nearly four me­tres high, the puya at the RBG needs to be propped up on a wood tri­pod. The thick trunk snakes out of the ground with dra­matic curves and pa­pery, peel­ing rem­nants of old leaves that have since died. At the top, the rare flower spike started shoot­ing up about two months ago; the first flower opened last weekend. “The flowers are a strik­ing sul­phur yel­low; we don’t know how long it’s go­ing to bloom,” Hen­der­son says.

The puya’s clos­est rel­a­tive is the pineap­ple plant, though it shares none of the pineap­ple’s sweet per­son­al­ity ac­cord­ing to Hen­der­son.

“The spikes are re­ally hor­ren­dous; it’s thought that they are an anti-pre­da­tion mech­a­nism.”

The the­ory is an­i­mals like birds or sheep get caught in the leaves, die, and their de­com­pos­ing bod­ies fer­til­ize the plant.

At the RBG Mediter­ranean Garden, the puya has never re­ceived spe­cial treat­ment. “Treat them mean to keep them lean” is how Hen­der­son ex­plains these plants like to grow.

Plant lovers who want to see the rare puya flower should visit it at the RBG Cen­tre on Plains Road in Burling­ton, soon. After it flowers, the plant dies. Be­fore that, the RBG hopes to prop­a­gate the puya. But like so much about it, how it’s pol­li­nated is a mys­tery, says Hen­der­son.

“I heard it’s birds and bees, but we’re not sure.”

At the very least, the RBG will col­lect bits of the plant to pre­serve in the herbar­ium col­lec­tion. The flower will be easy, but those spiky leaves will re­quire body ar­mour to han­dle. “They’re ra­zor sharp; I al­most cut my hand open yes­ter­day,” he says.

With all our gar­dens a soggy mess, see­ing a sheep-eat­ing plant in bloom in a cosy green­house sounds pretty spe­cial. Just keep your hands to your­self.


Alex Hen­der­son, hor­ti­cul­tur­ist at the RBG, ex­am­ines the flowers on Puya Chilen­sis. The plant, which typ­i­cally blooms after about 20 years, has been at the RBG since 1986, and after 31 years has fi­nally bloomed. The plant will bloom once, then die. The leaves of the trop­i­cal plant have tiny spikes on them. Legend has it that sheep have be­come trapped by the spikes and died, caus­ing it to get the nick­name ’sheep eat­ing plant’.


The leaves of the trop­i­cal plant have tiny spikes on them.

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