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
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.