National Geographic : 1950 Oct
Puya, the Pineapple's Andean Ancestor BY MULFORD B. FOSTER T O WITNESS the dramatic flowering of the most colossal of all the herbs, an Andean ancestor of the pineapple, I flew 6,000 miles from Florida to the heart of Bolivia. There, high in the Andes, a mile and a half above the sea, I found a giant herb of fantastic proportions, the Puya raimondii, largest of all the bromeliads in the world. When the layman thinks of herbs, he prob ably has in mind such familiar aids to cook ing as thyme, mustard, or marjoram.* Botanically, however, herbs are classed as seed-producing plants which do not have a central woody structure, as do our trees and shrubs. This herb was a towering specimen stand ing in solitary grandeur, with its feet in the rocks and its head in the clouds. Where else but in a dream could one expect to find an herb more than 30 feet high? The flower stalk alone is some 20 feet long, with a circumference of 8 feet. My mind had difficulty in accepting what the eye and camera recorded (page 469). When Giant Puya Blooms, It Dies My previous knowledge of Puya raimondii was limited to a botanical description and a photograph published in 1911 in a German work. I had long felt the urge to go see such a curiosity. Now the dream was a pilgrim age. Fortunately, after correspondence with Dr. Martin Cardenas, I had been able to time my visit with the flowering period of the only survivor in this vast locality, many miles from the other three known groups of these plants, one in Bolivia and two in Peru. Not in the memory of anyone in the vicinity of Cochabamba had raimondiibloomed before. The flowering period is its swan song, be cause, when raimondii shoots its great compact columnar flower head 30 feet or more into the air, it is the first and only time it will bloom. And it takes nearly 150 years to reach that climax. Three days after arrival in Bolivia we finished preparations for the trip to Cuesta de Huakaqui, which means in Quechua the "Slope of Going to Cry." Early in the morn ing of November 13, 1948, Dr. Cardenas and I with three local helpers started out from Cochabamba on that memorable trip. Dr. CArdenas is the outstanding botanist * See "Spices, the Essence of Geography," by Stuart E. Jones, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1949. in Bolivia. He knows the high Andes, its plants, its Spanish and Indian peoples. Hav ing part Quechua Indian blood, he speaks that language besides several others. He was a fellow at Cambridge University, England, before he became president of the University of Cochabamba. Cochabamba nestles on the eastern side of the Bolivian Andes, the broadest part of the Andean range. Cocha means "lake" in Spanish; bamba is a corrupt form of the Indian pampa, meaning "plain"; thus the name implies a "lake of plains." This situa tion makes Cochabamba an agricultural center. The mountain Huakaqui rises to about 8,000 feet. It is rocky and dry, with very little vegetation. Fire Ladder Borrowed to Climb an Herb An hour or so before reaching our desti nation we stopped in a village and went to the local fire department. I supposed the visit was for some ordinary permit, but it proved to be for a very special permission. We desired the loan of the firemen's longest ladder. Dr. Cardenas facetiously suggested that they postpone all fires until our return, possibly the following day. The firemen allowed us to take the ladder, and we proceeded on our climb high on those parched and brown rocky slopes, wondering all the while how it was possible that so arid an area could sustain such a giant plant. The last few miles were a strain on the old truck which transported us wearily over the last hill and around the last curve till we were startled by the sight of an imposing isolated sentinel, the great chuqui kjara ("strong puya"), as the Indians called it. To us it was a noble specimen of Puya raimondii. For miles there was little vegetation to be seen in those great stretches of barren rocky wastes; yet there on the mountain Huakaqui was a solitary "candlestick" to celebrate my 60th birthday. First to Photograph Giant Puya in Color This plant had sprouted from a small winged seed nearly a century before I was born. It had withstood high winds, shifting of rocks, rare fied air, and blistering sun. Its charred trunk gave evidence that it had survived the fires which Indians frequently set. I was humbled before the dignified giant. I was to be the first to photograph in color and record on motion-picture film this mam moth of all the herbs at its blooming period.