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Plant Highlight: Puya berteroniana

May 2006

Puya is a large genus, with over 150 species, in the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae).  Plants in the family are all from the New World, ranging from the southern parts of the U.S. all the way down to southern South America.  The family probably originated in South America, where its diversity is greatest.  Of the cultivated types, a large portion are tropical plants not suitable for garden use in our more temperate climate.  Puyas are an exception to this.  Their distribution is mostly in a north-south band following the Andes mountain range, and many can withstand frost.

While puyas grow in dry areas, their leaves are not succulent.  However, their drought-tolerance, spiky form, and sharp-toothed leaf margins combine to make them appealing to succulent growers, and they are often used with succulents in garden plantings.

Puya berteroniana, which comes from Chile, is a large species, forming a multi-headed clump which may be over 5 feet (1½ meters) tall.  Its spiny-edged sword-like leaves are green on the upper surface and silvery on the underside, reaching about 3 feet (1 meter) in length.  P. berteroniana belongs to a small group of 7 species (classified as sub-genus Puya within the genus Puya) which have a unique type of inflorescence.  Members of this group have stout flower stalks with lateral branches, each of which has flowers along its lower portion, but ends in a stiff spur which is often used as a perch by birds.

Plants of P. berteroniana are quite dramatic in and of themselves, but their flowers are unforgettable. The inflorescence is typically 8 to 12 feet tall (2½ to 4 meters), 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 in spring.