The genus Puya supposedly contains over 100 species, most native to the higher elevations in South America. Despite the large number of species in the wild, only a dozen or so are ever seen in cultivation and only a few are ‘common’. These are bromeliads, and like most bromeliads, these plants are primarily monocarpic (die once they finish flowering).
Puya alpestris is absolutely amazing – native to the higher elevations of central Chile. It doesn’t form an edible fruit but the flowers will have you salivating. Despite their made-out-of-plastic appearance, they are “real.” Sapphire Tower has a sensational rosette of serrated spiny leaves. It probably has the thinnest, most elegant leaves of all Chilean Puyas. It will form a spike filled with blue-turquoise flowers. Puya alpestris is supposed to be the most hardy one of all Chilean Puyas.
The plant forms a rosette of spiny silvery-green leaves about 3 feet long. The blooms are pollinated by birds, which love to sit on the outward-pointing tips and drink the nectar inside. It takes about 6-8 years to reach flowering size. The flowers are shocking, sapphire-blue flowers held on 4-5 ft spikes. This is a most extraordinary color with the deepest sapphire blue and a green overtone. It’s said to give off a rich, burnt sugar fragrance. For several years the clump will gradually enlarge until it is about 2 feet tall. Usually by this time several pups have started.
The Huntington has more than 20 kinds of Andean puyas, from several sources – probably the finest collection in North America. A large collection came from James West, who was a member of T. Harper Goodspeed’s expeditions to the Andes. Goodspeed wrote about those exploits in the botanical travel classic Plant Hunters in the Andes (1941). Myron Kimnach, the former botanical director of The Huntington, also helped expand the collection.
Puyas bloom from late winter throughout the spring, and come in a variety of spectacular colors, including brilliant yellow, teal blue, royal blue, green, purple, and near black. Amazingly, all puyas have a very special characteristic—after they bloom, their petals twist together, perhaps to protect the ovary from cold and insects.