The rare Puya raimondii is beginning to bloom at the UC Botanical Garden. Photo: UC Botanical Garden
The rare Puya raimondii is beginning to bloom at the UC Botanical Garden. Photo: UC Botanical Garden

A rare Puya raimondii plant is beginning to bloom at Berkeley’s UC Botanical Garden, a sight that you may only have one opportunity to see — unless you find yourself in the right place at the right time in the Bolivian Andes.

“It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” said Paul Licht, director of the UC Botanical Garden. That’s true in more ways than one, as the Puya raimondii dies after flowering. It will be decades until one blooms again in Berkeley.

The endangered plant, nicknamed “the Queen of the Andes,” is beginning to bloom in a process that can produce 30,000 flowers on a 15-foot stalk above the already large plant. In the wild, the plants only bloom when they are 80-100 years old. This one is only 24 years old, making it the youngest of the three plants that have ever flowered in a botanical garden.

The pre-bloom Puya raimondii is a spherical bush made up of pointed leaves hanging outward. When it blooms, a rough green shape emerges from the top of the bush, with skin like a cactus and shaped like a torpedo. That torpedo can grow to fifteen feet tall before the delicate white flowers bloom.

“It’s exciting because it almost never ever happens, especially in a botanical garden,” said Licht. “And it’s a very awesome plant.”

Only two Puyas have ever before bloomed in a botanical garden, both in the Bay Area. The first was at the UC Botanical garden in 1986, when the plant was 29-30 years old, according to Licht. The second was a 33-year-old plant in the San Francisco Botanical garden in 2006. The Berkeley plant, according to Licht, was thought to have bloomed at the youngest age possible — until now.

“No one expected it to bloom for many years,” said Licht. “It’s probably the only time I’ll ever see one of these bloom.”

According to Licht “thousands” of people came to see the flower when it bloomed in 1986, and they’re hoping for a similar turn-out this time.

The Puya raimondii is in the South American Area of the Garden, next to the Garden of Old Roses. The Garden has set up a viewing platform to observe the blooming process. The Garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Photos and information are available on the Botanical Garden’s website.

Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans.

Rare and fleeting: See the Corpse Flower in bloom (06.21.10)

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