The Puya Raimondii plant from South America blooms only once in its lifetime, and then it dies. Ordinarily this plant, also called the “Queen of the Andes”, doesn’t bloom until it is 80 -100 years old. Thus, every time this species blooms, it attracts attention.
The Bay area has experienced blooming Puya twice in the past 30 years. First, at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens in 1986, and second, at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in 2006. Now in 2014 we have a third opportunity to see the blooming Puya—once again at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens. A seed planted in 1990 has begun to bloom, making it, at 23, the youngest Puya to have reached this stage.
I saw the Puya last week. Although it is surrounded by many other exotic and unusual plants, it stands out because it is 15 feet tall, growing straight out of its base, an exhuberant cluster of grasses. White blossoms cluster on the stalk, and many buds promise more flowers in the coming weeks.
The Puya Raimondii reminds me of an equally striking stalk-like plant, an import from the Canary Islands called Echium Candicans, or Pride of Madeira. Like the Puya, Echium grows tall, and flowers along its stalk. Like the Puya, Echium is monocarpic, meaning that it blooms and then dies. Unlike the Puya, Echium grows in profusion throughout the Bay area especially on the coast. Bay area environmentalists worry that Echium is taking over the habitat of native plants.
Both Puya and Echium produce hundreds of seeds in their final days as they flower and then die. Botanists carefully preserve the seeds of the Puya and share them with other botanical facilities, hoping to propagate the endangered species. As for the Echium, botanists may remove the stalk before the seeds have time to drop, hoping to prevent any further spreading of the plant.