T.E.R:R.A.I.N - Taranaki Educational Resource: Research, Analysis and Information Network


Puya chilensis (Sheep-eating plant)

Kingdom:   Plantae
(Unranked):        Angiosperms
(Unranked):        Monocots
(Unranked):        Commelinids
Order:       Poales
Family:      Bromeliaceae
Subfamily: Pitcairnioideae
Genus:      Puya (over 100 species)
Species:     P. chilensis
Binomial name: Puya chilensis
Synonyms : Chilensis Pitcairnia, Pitcairnia coarctata, Pers coarctata Pourretia, Puya chilensis var. Gigantea, Puya coarctata,Puya Copiapo, Puya gigantea,  Corky Puya.
Common name: Puya, Chilean Puya, Sheep-eating plant, Chagual.

Puya chilensis is an evergreen perennial drought and sun tolerant bromeliad originating from the arid hillsides of the Andes Chile. Unlike tree-dwelling Bromeliads, Puya chilensis has fully-functional roots and grows terrestrially, much like a cacti or succulent. It is common on north facing slopes of matorral areas at 300-1000 m above sea level where by spreading by offsets it forms huge impenetrable colonies.
Puya chilensis forms large, dense rosettes of pale grey-green, strap-like leaves which are up to 1 m. long by 3.5 cm wide. The outer two thirds of the leaf blade bear outward pointing spines which may be an adaptation to prevent herbivores from reaching the center of the plant. The plant is colloquially known as the “Sheep-eating plant” for its bizarre method of eating. Sheep and other animals get caught on its sharp spines and then starve to death. When the animal decays, the plant absorbs the animal's nutrients, like a fertilizer.
Growth is slow and plants may take fifteen to twenty years or more to flower. Flowering usually occurs in spring however, if the water supply conditions are optimal it can bloom all year. The actual flowerhead is up to 1m long and packed with racemes of neon bright, green-yellow chunky flowers with bright orange anthers. The flowerheads are borne on 2m high spikes and resemble a medieval mace with flower spikes sticking out in all directions. The individual waxy blooms measure 6-8cms long and they can contain enough nectar for a person to drink. Birds pollinate these flowers when they perch on the outward-pointing sterile tips and drink the sweet nectar inside the deep receptacle. Bees are also pollinators.  Flowering lasts about a week then the inflorescence dries and seeds are formed. The plant is monocarpic so the flowering stem will die when it flowers.
Native Chileans used this plant in folk medicine as an emollient and astringent. The tender parts of the leaves are sold by street vendors. They are finely chopped up an eaten as a salad.  Their stalks are used to extract and manufacture fibre cords. These were use to make fishing nets.