Weird and wonderful: Puya alpestris

I'll never forget how awestruck I was the first time I saw Puya alpestris in flower. It was at Annie's Annuals on July 23, 2011, so almost exactly 10 years ago. I couldn't remember the exact date (my memory isn't that good), but a quick search on my blog helped me figure it out. Here are two photos I took that day:

July 23, 2011: Puya alpestris at Annie's Annuals

July 23, 2011: Puya alpestris at Annie's Annuals

I bought my own Puya alpestris a year and a half later, on April 28, 2013, at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden's spring plant sale. As you can see in the photo below, it was in a 1-gallon pot and quite small: 

April 28, 2013: UC Berkeley Plant Sale. One of these Puya alpestris ended up coming home with me.

For reasons I cannot remember, or maybe for no reason at all other than general negligence, I didn't post any other photos of my Puya alpestris on Succulents and More. I planted it in a large terracotta pot (11 inches in height × 15 inches in width) in the plant ghetto in the backyard where it remains to this day. 

Over the years, it has formed a small clump of three rosettes. This spring, the largest rosette (10 inches in height × 20 inches in width) started to push a flower stalk:

May 10, 2021

The first flowers opened up while I was in Arizona, but my wife sent me a photo:

May 19, 2021

Not knowing how long each flower lasts, I wasn't sure how many would be left when I got back. I needn't have worried—there were plenty. In fact, even now, more than two weeks later, there are few. I'd peg the total flowering time at two to three weeks.

The way my eyes—and the camera—see color of the petals varies depending on the time of day, whether the flower is in the sun or shade, and whether the sky is clear or overcast. Sometimes the color is more on the green side of turquoise, sometimes more on the blue side. But it's always striking, especially in contrast with the bright orange anthers.

Puya alpestris is definitely a plant you grow primarily for the flowers. And even with the promise of spectacular flowers dangling in front of you like the proverbial carrot, your patience is sorely tested. Mine took eight years to bloom after I bought it—so at least ten years from seed.

Compared to the flowers, the foliage isn't much to look at:

My Puya alpestris in its terracotta prison

And unless you have plenty of room and don't mind sacrificing some of it to an impenetrable clump of well-armed leaves, you probably don't want to set it loose in the ground:

Dense clump of Puya alpestris at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. Their clone is more silver than mine.

Puya alpestris is a member of the bromeliad family native to the Chilean Andes where it grows on dry, barren slopes at altitudes up to 6,500 ft. It's used long periods of drought but will gladly accept regular water. I've never noticed any winter damage; San Marcos Growers rates it as “hardy to temperatures as low as 18° F for short durations.”

Puya alpestris isn't the easiest plant to find, but Annie's Annuals has it now and then. The closely related Puya alpestris subsp. zoellneri (previously known as Puya berteroniana) has very similar flowers but it's a much larger plant overall—too large for most private gardens.

Note re: Puya berteroniana: According to a 2013 taxonomic revision of the Chilean Puya species, “[a] re-evaluation of the widely applied concept of P. berteroniana led us to the conclusion that the type of P. berteroniana is of hybrid origin and is maintained as Puya × berteroniana. The name P. berteroniana has been widely misapplied to what in fact is the northern metapopulation of P. alpestris, which is here described as a new subspecies, Puya alpestris subsp. zoellneri, a member of subgenus Puya.” 

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  1. Such an unusual inflorescence and flower colour. Almost looks artificial. Worth waiting for though.

  2. Hi there, my puya alpestris has just started to get a stalk in the middle (i hope) and am wondering if you can tell me how long from the start of the flower stalk first growing to the time it is tall and sprouting the flowers? I am beyond excited to have these Sapphire Tower blooms!

    1. It's hard to say precisely, but at least a few weeks. It depends on how warm it is and how much you water it.

    2. it has been quite warm in Camarillo (86 degrees yesterday) and I water it often. I am so excited!

    3. Could you share the composition of the substrate you are successfully growing your puya alpestris in? I have one on order but don't know what growing medium to use. I'm leaning towards roughly 1 part each cactus potting mix, humus, and pumice.

    4. Rainier, it's about 75% commercial potting and 25% pumice. That's fairly close to what you were considering. I hand-water once a week from spring through fall (March-October). The winter is our rainy season so I don't need to water.


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