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vert bar IN THE NEWS, Tuesday 19th February 2013

Puya chilensis

Our 'Sheep-eating Plant' is in bloom. This Chilean plant is a relative of the pineapple. It grows in arid hillsides of the western Andes at altitudes of up to 1,200m. After 14 years of growth One plant is now blooming in the Curvilinear range. The electric-yellow flowers with bright orange anthers are pollinated by the Giant Hummingbird - Patagona gigas (left).

The Giant Hummingbird lives in the warmer forests at low altitude and each morning flies up to feed on the copious nectar produced by the puyas. Being so large it is not good at hovering and uses the puya's spikes for perching to reach the flowers.

The leaves have ferociously sharp backward-pointing spines. The plants are known to trap birds and even sheep. Unable to escape these victims die of starvation and their decaying bodies provide nutrients to the puya plants.

Unfortunately this taste for sheep is its undoing - Shepherds set fire to these highly flammable plants and they are now becoming increasingly rare. The largest species of all - Puya raimondii - has flowering spike up to 10m tall bearing up to 3,000 white flowers.