Standing in front of the spiky stalk of Puya alpestris, I understood why someone had named it “Sapphire Tower.” I take that back; I’m not sure sapphire is exactly accurate. Randy Baldwin, general manager at San Marcos Growers (my favorite wholesale nursery) describes it at their website:

Turquoise blue-green flowers (sometimes called metallic or "unearthly") bloom on terminal branching 4-5 foot tall stalks in the spring. Equally exquisite as the petals are the bright orange anthers contrasting the teal blue.

   Puya flower
I half expected laser beams to start shooting out of the ends of the buds.

But who wants to call a plant Turquoise Blue-Green Metallic Unearthly Tower? They don’t make plant tags that big.

I remember the first time I saw a puya in bloom. I had been alerted by a flurry of e-mails that something tantamount to discovering the burrow of the Easter Bunny had occurred. “OMG! You’ve GOT to see the puya at Orpet Park! It’s FLOWERING!!!” (I know, way too many exclamation marks, but that’s how excited my horti-buddies were.)

Arriving at the park, I understood the fervor. I was at a loss for words to describe the color of the bloom. Not unlike Randy’s description, my thoughts went to a sci-fi B-movie (make that D-movie). Otherworldly, indeed, if you call “teal” otherworldly.

I beheld the plant in its full splendor again a few weekends ago while visiting San Diego with my wife, Lin. That was the same trip when I finally met my Flickr buddy, Roberta Correia, the subject of my last blog post.

Before I left Roberta’s house, I mentioned that Lin and I might be going to Quail Botanical Garden. Her eyes glazed over, a trance-like state taking control of her faculties. “You HAVE to visit the puya! I was just there last week and it’s in full bloom,” she demanded. “It’s hard to find, but it’s worth it.”

Such enthusiasm. Maybe puya exudes some sort of nirvanic pheromone. This could be fun. So that same afternoon, we drove thirty minutes north of San Diego and were greeted by late afternoon sunlight, the kind that adds a gentle, warming glow to a garden.

  Quail Botanical Gardens
   Quail Botanical Gardens has changed its name to the San Diego Botanic Garden.
Quail was once the 30-acre private estate of Charles and Ruth Laribee, avid plant collectors who left the property to the County of San Diego in 1957. In 1993, a non-profit was formed. Their mission is to actively participate in the conservation of rare, threatened and endangered plant species. No doubt about it; the puya is right at home here.

Puya is a form of bromeliad (like a pineapple) native to the dry slopes of the Chilean Andes. It grows in full sun, is succulent—so it doesn’t require much water—and enlivens the garden year-round with its viciously serrated silvery leaves. It can stand low temperatures between 15 and 20 deg. F. I’ve seen them as large at four feet high and equally wide, so if you plant one, leave adequate space.

  Imagine weeding under these bad boys. Imagine the copay at the emergency ward.
I’ve never used Puya alpestris in a design project, for two reasons. First, I would hate to have my client or their gardener weed around the plant. I’m not kidding about the sharp teeth along the edge of the leaves. Short of wearing a pair of those elbow-length heavy leather rose pruning gloves, I don’t want to subject anyone to multiple stitches when they garden.

Secondly, and closer to home for this designer, what on earth could you plant that would blend with or compliment the color of these strange flowers? I’ve been through a huge box of crayons, and frankly, I’m stumped.

So I turn to you, my broad base of new-found readers. Have you grown puya? If so, what have you paired it with? I know there are some brilliant colorists among you who can set me straight. I’d love to use the plant, but other than tossing it in as a stranger-than-fiction oddity, my artistic mind is a blank.

If you have any creative ideas, leave a comment.

Now enjoy a tour of a few other Quail Botanical Garden lovelies.

Quail Botanical Garden has an extensive collection of succulents, including this sumptuous Aeonium.

Sunburst Aeonium
Aeonium 'Sunburst' can brighten up any bed with its intense variegation and splashy face.

Aloe flower
There were too many aloes to count. I was attracted by how this one glowed in the high shade of a native coast live oak tree.

Cycad leaf
Found in fossil records from the Cenozoic era, cycads are a stunning foliage addition at Quail.

Cycad cone
Though some cycads are frequently labeled as palms, they are gymnosperms ("naked seed") and more closely related to pines and other conifers.

Deuterocohnia brevifolia
This bizarre mound is Deuterocohnia brevifolia. From a single 1-1/2" succulent rosette, a virtual anthill of foliage grows, wrapping around rocks and trees. Oh yes, it's another bromeliad, like its cousin, puya.

Senecio mandraliscae
One of my go-to ground covers is blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae). The vertical form and ice cool leaves make a great foil for any other color.

Echeveria subrigida
I missed the plant identification label on this one, but succulent expert and garden writer Debra Lee Baldwin helped me out. This lusciously colored specimen is Echeveria subrigida.

Artificial turf
I have a bone to pick - artificial turf. Yes, it's hard to grow real turf in high traffic low sunlight spaces. Then how about paving? Artificial turf is an environmental nightmare. I'll blog about it soon enough.

Cycads and water lilies
Let's end on a happy note. A visit to Quail Botanical Garden is a lot less expensive than a ticket to Hawaii. Here palms, cycads and water lilies create a great escape.

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