On Saurday 16th June I had the great pleasure of greeting Dr John David, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chief Scientist at VBG. We spent a highly enlightening afternoon reviewing the Puya collection. We received this email from Dr David frollowing his visit:
First of all, thank you for what proved to be a fascinating day. I was deeply impressed by the range of puyas you are successfully growing (and flowering) outside.
For me Ventnor Botanic Garden is one of the most remarkable gardens in the UK. First, the climate is unique, combining the mild winters that arise from being surrounded by the sea with the higher summer temperatures that prevail in the SE of the UK and high light levels which together allow many Mediterranean plants to flourish there. Second, the unique growing conditions have meant that many plants thrive at Ventnor which do not elsewhere, the garden therefore has an extraordinary collection of rare plants. Third, the connection to the Hillier Nurseries in the early days of the Botanic Garden means that the core collections contain many rare plants introduced by what is still today one of Britain’s leading nurseries. I believe that no other garden in the UK can offer this combination of circumstances.
At the invitation of Chris Kidd, I came to Ventnor to check the collection of puyas, some of which were in flower. These South American relatives of the pineapple (Bromeliaceae) are found on both sides of the Andes but are only rarely found in UK gardens. This may be because they do not tend to cope well with the average British winter, although some may also be put off by the ferocious hooked spines with which their leaves are edged. However, once seen in flower, with inflorescences up to 10 feet tall, and hundreds of exotically hued flowers, then such drawbacks are swiftly forgotten. Most of the plants growing at Ventnor belong to the bird-perch group of puyas (subgenus Puya), six species of which grow in Chile and adjacent areas. They are known as bird-perch puyas as their inflorescences have sterile branches on which birds can perch to drink the copious nectar in the flowers, while at the same time effecting pollination. In Chile this is done by sunbirds, but in the UK some of our native birds have discovered the puyas’ rich nectar supply and so the plants often set seed. And this is where the purpose of my visit came in. It was apparent, as a result, that a number of plants growing at Ventnor are in fact hybrids. The original plants came from Tresco Abbey Gardens where it seems likely that two species, the yellow-flowered P. chilensis and the turquoise-flowered P. berteroniana, have crossed. At Ventnor there is a range of different forms of the hybrid, showing different degrees of similarity to either parent but they all share the green flowers. While I have suspected for some time that Tresco’s plants have hybridised, this is the first opportunity I have had to test the hypothesis as the existence of the hybrid between these species has not previously been documented. The possibility exists of doing some molecular work to prove what we suspect with regard to the hybrid nature of the berteroana/chilensis plants.
Thank you again for looking after me so well on the day – I look forward to returning to Ventnor as soon as possible!
Dr John C David
RHS Chief Scientist
RHS Garden Wisley