Puya (2004)

PhotoBy Linda Rees (June 2004)

The genus Puya belongs to the group of Bromeliaceae that are terrestrial rather than epiphytic. They grow on rocks or soil, rather than as air plants. They form dense rosettes of slender sword-like leaves.

Terrestrials tend to be very drought-tolerant and have stiff, coarse foliage. Heavily armed with saw-toothed spiny margins, they are resilient to pests and diseases.

Puyas need to be grown in temperatures above 50 degrees and watered thoroughly. Frequent light watering can cause a buildup of salts and harmful chemicals on the leaves, but the plants do benefit from washing dust off on a regular basis.

While casually watching T.V. a while back, I heard a Bromeliad collector living in Costa Rica explain to the garden show host that she let her thorny genera grow in more sun than those with smooth margins. I follow that rule by putting my puyas in more sun than my other Bromeliads, which are smooth.

There are not very many species of puya in cultivation, but the selection ranges widely in size. P. raimondii is a giant plant that, according to my old “Exotica” book, can grow for 150 years. With an inflorescence of up to 18 feet, the plant can get to 35 feet. It most likely is the largest monocarpic herb, or plant producing flowers and fruit only once. From the mountains of Bolivia and Peru, P. raimondii can grow at altitudes of 12,000 feet. Obviously this is not a species grown by amateur gardeners.

P. alpestris is the most popular of the puyas. It has shiny, spiny, light gray-green recurving leaves that are a half-inch to an inch wide. The inflorescence is a spectacular metallic blue with orange anthers that can reach 4 feet high. P. alpestris does die after flowering, but generally produces offshoots.

Two other species are from Chile. P. berteroniana is a clumping rosette 3 feet high by 5 feet wide, with flexible, pendent, glossy green leaves that have small hooked spines and gray or white hairs underneath. Flowers are green-blue, also described as metallic with orange anthers. P. chilensis has thin, chanelled, leathery leaves of grayish green with scattered large spines in old plants. Its flowers are greenish-yellow. lists P. mirabilis (Green Comet) as a variant of P. alpestris, stating: “Flowers resemble species gladiolus and are a smart ‘Martha Stewart chartreuse.'” Its rosette measures 2 feet high by 2 feet wide and is described as having slightly prickly leaves that are more flexible than those of P. alpestris.

There is an informative article by Phyllis Flechsig referring to puyas in CSSA Newsletter No. 28. Flechsig mentions that most terrestrials are in the subfamily of Pitcairnoideae and has good information on their care and growing.

Other sources talked about the hazards of puyas in the wild to animals – and gardeners, too – from the ability of their barbs to freely move inward but not back out. Thus birds get snared, and sheep in the Andes sometimes catch their wool on the barbs and cannot get free. On the other hand, it was also mentioned that puyas contain very flammable resins, and therefore large stands can be wiped out by a wayward shepherd’s fire.