So Long to Mature!


WHY do visitors drive two to three hours from the Andean city of La Paz, across part of the barren wastes of the Altiplano, to an isolated area called Comanche? Why do some botanists come from the ends of the earth to visit this high outcrop of rock that is dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape?

The answer: To see what has been called both the most colossal of all the herbs and the most remarkable plant of the Andes​—the Puya raimondii. If you visit in the spring, you may be fortunate enough to see a most extraordinary flower display, which, according to some, takes a hundred years to develop.

You won’t find the Puya raimondii anywhere else for hundreds of miles; in fact, this rare species grows in only a few places, all in the Andes Mountains. Since it has no woody structure, as trees and shrubs have, botanists classify it as an herb. But you have never seen an herb with these dimensions! The huge rosette of narrow, heavily spiked leaves extends far beyond the reach of even the tallest of men. Peering within, you realize that this is a death trap for small birds. The narrowing spaces between the leaves nearly always contain the dried carcasses of birds that entered the foliage, perhaps to escape a hawk, only to be impaled on deadly spikes.

You will probably find the flowers the most interesting part of this plant. Among the scores of plants in this colony, you will usually find only one or two in bloom, if any.

To witness this giant of the flora in bloom is truly a thrilling experience. Towering above its leafy base is the tallest flower spike in the botanical world. On it, thousands of yellow flowers reach 30 feet [10 m] into the air​—higher than a three-story building! Clinging to the rocks and reaching for the sky, the Puya raimondii stands in magnificent isolation.

 But sadly, the Puya raimondii is threatened with extinction. For some reason, people like to burn this plant. Whether they do it for the fun of seeing a flaming torch of such grand proportions, for warmth when the temperature plummets, or for fear that sheep will become entangled in its spiny leaves and die is a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, the puya has endured despite fire, frost, winds, scorching sun, and a scarcity of soil. How does it do it?

The Puya raimondii belongs to a large family of some 2,000 species that seem to specialize in surviving where other plants do not​—the bromeliads. Except for one type, all of them are native only to the Americas. Like the puya, many of them have roots that, more than anything else, fix them in place. They have microscopic scales on their leaves that enable them to absorb moisture from the air rather than from the ground. Also, when there is dew or rain, it trickles down into central reservoirs that provide not only for the plant but also for an abundance of tiny creatures. But of all the bromeliads, the Puya raimondii is the biggest.

What attracts interest in this “queen of the Andes,” as it has been nicknamed, is the remarkably long time that it takes to mature and flower. A noted botanist counted the leaf scars of a dead specimen and estimated its age to be 150 years. Others claim that the plants live only 70 years. Local people call them centenary plants, believing that they take a hundred years to come to their flowering period. The first one ever to be grown under cultivation from seed reportedly flowered in just 28 years in California in 1986. Whatever the truth about the puyas growing high in the Andes, they do take a very long time to mature.

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How does the huge “Puya raimondii” grow with so little soil?

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The “Puya raimondii’s” thousands of flowers attract many birds

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A “Puya raimondii” that survived a fire