To Adelaide in search of Puya Chilensis

Though I could see the Adelaide Oval and the city of Adelaide from my window as my plane came in to land on Thursday morning, I could still scarcely believe this was where I was heading. Or the fact that I, not particularly known for an interest in botany or even green fingers, was here to see a plant. puya1Yet that was the plan in a quick 24 hour shuttle from Brisbane with a 6am flight down and the same time back the following morning. I tried to remember when I was last in this city, around 1993 or 1994. After I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in 1998, Adelaide was always just a little bit too far away and I lacked a good excuse to go there – until this week.puya2My ultimate destination was the Adelaide Botanic Gardens but I got off the airport bus for a walk to admire the solidity of the many stone buildings. I had arranged to meet an internet friend for coffee on North Terrace. I was pleased with the choice because not only were the Gardens nearby, so were the Museum, Art Gallery and State Library, all of which I hoped to visit later in the day.  We had a lovely chat IRL and I stayed a lot longer at the cafe than I anticipated.puya3In conversation I described what I was here to see: a Chilean bromeliad called puya chilensis, currently in flower at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. I first heard of it in 2013. The Royal Horticultural Society had put out a media release for its Wisley garden in Surrey to advertise its three-metre-tall puya chilensis which had burst into superb flowering for the first time in 15 years. That was newsworthy but what really attracted the BBC, HuffPo and other international media was the description of a very peculiar quality of the plant: it ate sheep. As the BBC said “In the Andes it uses its sharp spines to snare and trap sheep and other animals, which slowly starve to death.”puya4This was taking plant behaviour to a whole new level. As the headline in the Gizmodo story said this was “why you should find this plant absolutely terrifying.” Terrifying indeed, if true. I don’t know a great deal about botany, but I do know a bit about media and know they would be so desperate to believe puya chilensis could eat sheep they would likely not check whether it was true. A few days later, I published my findings on my blog as Puya Chilensis: Media fooled by “sheep-eating plant” (perhaps appropriate the rebuttal of a sheep-eating plant should be on a blog called Woolly Days). While I was pleased with my efforts, I had no idea how much impact it would have and thought no more of it. To my surprise, it was picked up by many plant and Reddit forums always used as the clinching argument against the fact it ate sheep. It was my most popular blog post of 2013 and topped my list again in 2014 and 2015. It remains my most ever blog post ever by a considerable margin. Every time puya chilensis came in flower somewhere in the world, someone would mention sheep eating and someone else would point out my story saying it was untrue.puya5All this was in my mind as I saw the unmistakable plant for the first time, four years later. It was a special moment. Having acquired an accidental reputation as an expert, I resolved that if the plant ever flowered in Australia I would go and see it. The chance arose a couple of weeks ago when Botanic Gardens SA put out a tweet. It read “Our ‘sheep-eating’ #Puya chilensis are flowering at #Adelaide Botanic Garden! We’ll post a blog on their ghastly reputation next week”. I didn’t see that tweet but I saw a reply from @GardenOpus which did the usual thing: “Always enjoy reading yarns about this one,” GardenOpus said, “but stories about its sheep eating habits have been mostly debunked”. They linked to my 2013 article. I laughed when I saw this but then realised I would be on holidays in Brisbane at that time. Adelaide was not out of the question. The $700 return air fare price wasn’t cheap but not dissimilar to prices I pay to get to Mount Isa. puya6I asked the Botanic Gardens would it still be in flower a week later and I told them about my relationship to the plant. They said it would and they also knew about my blog post. They replied, “it was a nice piece and mentioned in our blog Attack of the Sheep-Eating Plants.” The Gardens had even brought my story forward. In 2013 I asked the RHA about where they got the notion of sheep-eating from. They replied a few days after I published my post with some references to sheep-eating and I added it as an update. It was these references the South Australians were most interested in, “including one in Mabberley’s Plant-book, a comprehensive and internationally renowned plant reference source. The plot thickens.”  This clinched the deal for me and I immediately booked to go to Adelaide a couple of days later. I told the Gardens and though they wouldn’t guarantee me someone to talk to they gave me the reference on the map. puya7The puya chilensis were easy to find, standing tall and proud 3m high, next door to the hothouse containing the Amazonian lily pads. It was hard not to feel awe around them. They looked like a bizarre cross between a Norfolk pine, a marijuana plant and a triffid. At close inspection it did look possible that small animals could get caught in the large clump. When I posted a photo on social media, an former Adelaide-based friend claimed he once had to extricate a cat from the plant. puya10According to Mabberley’s Plant Book, puya leaves yield a fibre used for rot-resistant fishing nets but sheep and birds can get entangled in them. “The nutrients from which, as well as those from their droppings may be absorbed,” Mabberley said. Sheep-eaters or not, puya chilensis are impressive. There was not a great deal of information at the site of the plant other than a small sign nestled at the base with the plant name. Puya chilensis is in the Bromeliaceae family, better known as bromeliads, of which the equally spiky pineapple probably the most famous example. The largest bromeliad is a puya though not a chilensis, I found out later in the day.puya8Puya chilensis grows in arid hillsides of the western Andes at altitudes of up to 1200m. Some gardens report the flowering to be rare though other gardens, Adelaide included, say they flower each year in the early spring months. In Chile the giant hummingbird pollinates the electric-yellow flowers with bright orange anthers and uses the puya’s spikes for perching to reach the flowers. The leaves have ferociously sharp backward-pointing spines which trap animals. They die and their decaying bodies provide nutrients to the puya plants. Or so the story goes.puya9aIn Adelaide there were no obvious dead animals around though the honeyeaters and the bees were enjoying the copious nectar. The plant is flammable so regardless of sheep, farmers have a reason to fear it and cut it back. Its native habitat is also affected by oil and gas pipelines, high voltage power lines and the needs of fruit plantations. I began to look around the vicinity and found smaller varieties of puya nearby. Puya is from the Mapuche Indian word meaning “point”.  This one below is puya venusta, which flowers in red. Like chilensis it is found in central Chile. puya11This next one below is puya coerulea. This is a rare plant, also Chilean, known as the “pink torch” puya for its stunning flowering. It sends up a meter-long flower cluster that according to one plant site is “like a Dr. Suess version of a tiki torch”.puya15This one below is puya ferruginea, a small slow-growing plant in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. It has rosettes of long very thin silvery-green foliage that often twists towards the tips giving the plant a wind-blown asymmetrical appearance like a spiky tussock.puya16Having exhausted everything I wanted to do it was time to call in the experts. I took a walk past some beautiful exhibits to the admin building and introduced myself to the lady on reception telling her my business with the garden. She told me normally a gardener would be available to talk but they were all in meetings. However if I came back at 1pm someone would talk. Happy with that, I left the gardens to have lunch.puya13I came back at 1pm and as promised, the receptionist found me a gardener. The gardener didn’t mind me taping him but said he was not entitled to speak to media on behalf of the garden. For that reason I have not identified him or quoted him directly (apart from one instance which speaks to his character).  He told me the puya clump was probably at least 40 to 60 years old and used to be four times bigger. It had to be moved 10 years ago when they rebuilt the Amazonian section. puya9I asked him whether the plant had difficulty coping with the change from Chilean’s Mediterranean climate to Adelaide. He told me Chile’s climate was diverse and in any case Adelaide’s climate was also Mediterranean, a fact I had some difficulty digesting after finding it 15 degrees cooler than Brisbane. But his point stood, the plant had easily adapted to local conditions. puya9bHe told me their plant flowers every year for around six weeks but they don’t feed it sheep, or indeed any nutrients at all. He said it was a hardy plant that often thrived in poor soils. As we wrapped up our conversation he started telling me about another puya but he couldn’t remember its name. This one was even bigger than chilensis but was a monocarp which means it dies after a single flowering. I thanked the gardener for his information and started to walk back towards puya for another look.puya9cAs I walked back, I was startled by someone running up to me. It was the gardener. “I just remembered the name of the biggest puya,” he said. “Puya raimondii.” Adelaide did have one of these puyas – the largest bromeliad – which took a remarkable 50 years or so to flower well over three meters high. Even more remarkably it died immediately afterwards. I thanked the gardener again as I tried to imagine what it might have looked like. I don’t have a photo of puya raimondii so here’s an extraordinary one from Wikipedia in the wild in South America (By Pepe Roque – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)800px-Puya_raimondii_hábitoThis new knowledge was the icing on the cake of a great day and I thank the South Australian Botanic Gardens for their generous help and lovely gardens. I enjoyed the rest of my day in Adelaide in other pursuits though I could not get puya out of my mind. I remain none the wiser whether shepherds in the Andes lose sheep to a monster plant. I expected to be impressed by puya chilensis and I was. But I didn’t expect to be intrigued by the rest of the puyas. I certainly didn’t think my dreams would be haunted by the ghost of the astonishing puya raimondii, a plant that slowly builds its phallic erection over half a century only to die once it spills its solitary wad. Somehow I find that more terrifying than the sheep.

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One thought on “To Adelaide in search of Puya Chilensis

  1. My friend and I went on a pilgrimage to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in June in search of Araucaria columnaris, the New Caledonia Pine, as we had read an article stating that these trees have a tendency to lean towards the Equator. The article was about pines growing in the Northern hemisphere so we were very excited to have found a family of them growing in the south. We were even more thrilled to discover that they do in fact lean towards the equator! I will clearly have to return next year to see the flowing, sheep eating puyas!

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