An enormous and extremely rare plant, which shoots up an erect bud that bursts forth into tens of thousands of flowers, is readying for its bloom show time.
The plant, Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii), is in the process of producing a giant bloom that could shoot 30 feet high and feature 30,000 large flowers. This dramatic life cycle change only happens in the wild once every 100 or so years.
"She's continuing to grow!" UC Botanical Garden director Paul Licht told Discovery News, as he admired the imposing plant, which seems to love the dry, hot conditions of Berkeley.
The plant came to Berkeley as a seed, which was collected in Bolivia in 1990 by Larry Dorr, who is now with the U.S. National Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution. Dorr recalled crossing the Altiplano (high plains) from La Paz to Comanche to see the "Queen" in the wild.
"We were not thinking about collecting, and when we did see the plants in flower and fruit, we succumbed to the temptation to try to make several herbarium specimens," Dorr said. "Lacking ladders or pole pruners, we managed to dislodge parts of an infructescence (fruit) by throwing rocks at the fruiting stalk. We all joined in, and I do not remember now who had the best arm."
At "just" 24 years of age, the Berkeley plant is the youngest ever Queen of the Andes to bloom in captivity. The "Queen" is pampered at the site, and enjoys better soil than its native habitat. Licht explained that in the Andes where the plant's seed was collected, the climate tends to be "cold and the soil is very poor."
Yet another record broken by this plant is that it's the world's largest species of Puya. Plants in this genus, including the "Queen," are all native to the Andes Mountains of South America and southern Central America.
As the plant's central bud continues to grow, it is visited by the UC Botanical Garden's many hummingbirds and perching birds. The increasingly bulbous bud has outer leaves that resemble the skin of a cactus.
The Queen is already so tall that, in order to appreciate its details, garden visitors must stand on a viewing platform. Only the bud produces flowers.
The Guinness Book of World Records has named Puya raimondii the slowest flowering plant in the world. While Licht and his colleagues say it can bloom in the wild about once every 100 years, Guinness claims it can take up to 150 years.
This Puya raimondii in the Andes is in full bloom.
Visitors to the UC Botanical Garden are awaiting a similar moment. Licht said that, after the bloom, the plant dies. However, he quickly added, "We will be knee-deep in seed," which will be sold afterward.
"Gardeners can then invest the rest of their lives growing one up."