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New at FBTS: South America Puyas Are Otherworldly

Feb 11, 2014

New at FBTS: South America Puyas Are Otherworldly

The lavish sunset colors in a Georgia O'Keefe painting seem like a pleasant fantasy until you view a sunset in New Mexico where she painted. Similarly, if you don't live in the Andes and certain other parts of South and Central America, it can be difficult to believe photos of the otherworldly Puya genus, which produces unexpected colors and flower stalks rising up to 30 feet tall.

Members of the Bromeliad Family

Puyas are terrestrial members of the Bromeliads, a mostly tropical subfamily of Bromeliaceae. Whereas some Bromeliads grow rootless on trees, others -- such as the Pineapple (Ananus comosus) and Puyas -- root in the ground.

More than 200 documented species of Puyas grow from the coast of Chile up into the Andes at heights up to 14,500 feet and down again into the bogs of Costa Rica. Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are all home to the spiky stalks and pinecone-like structures of bracts and blossoms that are common to Puyas.

Before getting into the kinds of Puyas that Flowers by the Sea grows and sells, it's fun to consider some kinds that you won't find in our catalog.

Prickly Giants and Sheep Eaters
We don't sell the huge Puya raimondii, better known as the Queen of the Andes and the tallest Bromeliad in the world. It would be difficult to mail. Furthermore, it takes 80 to 150 years to bloom and then dies -- not a great sales feature.

Another startling member of the genus is Puya chilensis, which towers up to 10 feet tall and produces large, lime-green trumpet flowers. In spring 2013, the Royal Horticultural Society made headlines with its Puya chilensis that was getting ready to bloom after 15 years. Three years earlier, when a different Puya chilensis was getting ready to bloom in Wales, the RHS published a photo of the huge flower bud reminiscent of the pods in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Unfortunately, the species is known as the "sheep-eating plant," because sheep become entangled in thickets of its thorny foliage and die of starvation. Nutrients from their decomposed bodies feed the plants.

We don't want to imagine what might happen to poodles and other fluffy pets if customers were to try growing Puya chilensis in their backyards. So it's another fascinating but impractical species for our catalog.

Instead, we offer smaller and far less dangerous Chilean species with flowers and foliage so unusual that you might expect to find them in science fiction or, perhaps, Dr. Seuss's Whoville.

Plants for a Dr. Seuss Garden
Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, enjoyed gardening. According to the late author's publisher, Geisel tended his garden when he needed to "clear his thoughts or relieve a creative block."

During the years when he wrote the majority of his children's books, Geisel lived in an old observation tower in the hills outside of La Jolla, a coastal city in Southern California. Some commentators have suggested that this home inspired the mountainside hermitage of his famous Grinch.

It's also said that the gangly, mop-topped trees and towering flowers on wiggly stems that Geisel drew in his picture books were inspired by the strange shapes of chaparral and desert plants he saw in his surroundings.

Here are three Chilean Puyas that would be ideal for a Dr. Seuss-inspired garden. All love full sun, need well-drained soil and are drought tolerant. Be patient, because it can take about four years for these plants to bloom. But when they do, expect honeybee and hummingbird visitors.

Also, beware, because although these plants won't trap you in their foliage, it is best to wear long garden gloves and protective clothing when working around them. They are the spiny type Seuss likely meant when he referred to "perilous pants-eating plants" in his 1973 book Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Sapphire Tower (Puya alpestris) Zones 8 to 10
Alpestris means alpine, and this is a high-altitude plant. Its large, long-blooming blossoms are an intense combination of blue and green that could be described as teal.

The barbed, bayonet-shaped rosette of Sapphire Tower's basal foliage spreads up to 4 feet wide and its thick flower spike shoots up 4 feet. Strange cream-colored, groups of bracts project from the flower spike like unicorn horns.

Chagual (Puya venusta) Zones 8 to 10
Each stalk of Chagual has multiple flower heads that look like pink pinecones before they bloom. At this stage and from a distance, they look like skinny, big headed-aliens poking out of the landscape up to 6 feet tall.

But when they bloom -- oh, boy! They look like Fourth of July explosions of royal blue blossoms and pinkish-red bracts floating above Chagual's rosette of elegantly twisting, barbed foliage that spreads 4 feet wide.

Silver Puya (Puya coerulea) Zones 8 to 10
Similar to Chagual, Silver Puya has multiple flower heads branching off its reddish-pink stalk, which grows up to 36 inches tall. Although shorter than our two other Puyas, its silvery, bayonet-leaf foliage spreads 5 feet wide to form an economical ground cover. The bracts are a rosy green with touches of purple.

Salad Fixings and Final Thoughts
Although many sources refer to pineapples as being the only edible Bromeliad, that isn't accurate. In South America, the fleshy, mild-flavored hearts of Puya flowers are frequently shredded -- similar to cabbage in cole slaw -- and eaten in salads with a bit of lemon juice and cilantro.

At Flowers by the Sea, we are fascinated by unusual foods, faraway places and hard-to-find plants. But you'll notice that we are also purposeful and practical in our selections. Similar to so many Salvias and companion plants we grow, Puyas are fine choices for dry gardens.

If you decide to plant a mop-topped, wiggly-stemmed Dr. Seuss garden, and need some ideas in addition to our Puyas, please write or give us a call. We'd love to share ideas.


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Plants mentioned in this article