Nature

Exotic flowers bring startling color to UC Botanical Garden

Flowers of the Puya berteroana (formerly known as Puya berteronina), a native plant of Chile, blooming at the UC Botanical Garden. Photo,taken in May 2017, by Elaine Miller Bond

In April last year, Berkeleyside published a story by Elaine Miller Bond about the exotic blooming Puya berteroana, also known as Turquoise Puya, at UC Botanical Garden. Miller Bond was at the garden on Saturday and discovered that the beautiful teal-blue flowers were in peak bloom again now. The flowers are located in the South American section of the garden and are pretty easy to find, she said. There is also a sign at the front gate, encouraging garden visitors to the look for the flowers.

“The flower spikes this year might not be quite as tall as they were last year,” Miller Bond reported. “Nonetheless, they were gorgeous, and the color was dazzling.”

We thought their reappearance provided a splendid opportunity to reprint Miller Bond’s story from last year. Note that since it was published, the UC Botanical Garden has a new director. After 13 years serving as its director, Paul Licht retired last summer and was replaced by Eric Siegel.

Berkeleyside’s April 16, 2016 story on the Puya berteroana:

The color is spectacular, sublime, almost otherworldly. And it’s rarely seen in flowers, according to Paul Licht, director of the University of California Botanical Garden. It’s the teal hue of the blooming Puya berteroana, on display now in the garden.


“Everybody I’ve talked to is blown away by the color,” says Licht.

“I really think that this is one of those plants that brings visitors to the garden just to see it,” he adds.

Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Floral spikes of the Puya berteroana stand between 7 and 10 feet tall. Inside each flower, the bright yellow stamen and orange pollen enhance the teal hue. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

I could hardly believe it myself, as I looked overhead at what might be a 10-foot-tall spike, covered with many hundreds of rosettes. In fact, three plants are currently blooming in splendid towers of flowers.

Puya berteroana is a member of the bromeliad family, which includes pineapples. Many bromeliads are epiphytic; they grow on trees or other plants without harming them, and they generally draw moisture from the air or rain. (Think of “air plants” for sale in gift shops.) Puyas, by contrast, are terrestrial.

In 2014, Berkeleyside reported on another species of Puya when it bloomed in the UC Botanical Garden. Fondly nicknamed the “Queen of the Andes,” the giant Puya raimondii grew a 20-foot spike of thousands of white flowers, a process most of these plants typically undergo once in only 80 to 100 years. After the bloom, the plant died, as bromeliads generally do.


The bloom of the Puya berteroana is less bittersweet. Upon flowering, these plants produce many “pups” — offshoots that are clones of the parent plant.

A few pups live on. This, according to Licht, has enabled the same cluster of plants to survive in the UC Botanical Garden since 1982, when the original Puya berteroana specimens were collected from their native range in Chile.

Here, in a climate much like their own, these plants bloom nearly every year to the delight of garden visitors.

But it’s not just people who love these flowers. 

Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Green spikes among the rosettes serve as perches for birds. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

“The plants put out a conspicuously large amount of nectar, so much nectar that you can literally put your finger in it,” says Licht. “This is a meal worth dying for for a lot of pollinators.”


Looking at the plant, visitors might notice big green spikes radiating out from the flowers. Those serve as bird perches, sterile flower spikes that the plant produces for birds to sit upon, according to Licht.

“These spikes usually mean that the plant is bird-pollinated or bat-pollinated, and some believe that the Puya berteroana is also pollinated by diurnal moths in its native habitat of Chile,” he says.

Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Scrub jay on a Puya chilensis. Notice the pollen on the bird’s head. Photo: Melanie Hofmann

Back in the garden in Berkeley, visitors might get lucky and see birds (particularly jays) or squirrels using the ladder-like spikes to access the flower nectar.

They might also catch the towering blooms of other Puyas, like Puya chilensis, with its 12-foot spike of lime-green flowers, or Puya coerulea, with its deep indigo-blue flowers. In all, the garden has 18 different species of Puya in its collection.

“All are equally spectacular,” says Licht.

And I feel lucky to have seen one.

Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Spectacular Puya berteroana. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

The University of California Botanical Garden is located at 200 Centennial Drive in Berkeley. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with no entry after 4:30 p.m.) and is closed on holidays and the first Tuesday of every month. Admission fees and other information are posted on its website.