Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii)

Also known as: Queen of the Puna
Synonyms: Pourretia gigantea
  
Spanish: Puya de Raimondi
KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderPoales
FamilyBromeliaceae
GenusPuya (1)

The Queen of the Andes is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List (1).

The largest bromeliad in the world, the Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii) is best known for its spectacular flower spike, which can reach up to 10 metres in height (2). A conspicuous component of the Andean vegetation, each Queen of the Andes plant may take as long as 80 to 150 years to flower (3), but when it does, this plant is rather stunning, with a spike that bears over 8,000 whitish-green blooms, which turn purplish with age. The spike protrudes from a dense cluster of bayonet-like leaves (2). As protection from browsing animals, each leaf is edged with fish-hook-like spines (2) (3).

The Queen of the Andes grows in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, where it has a fairly patchy distribution between Calipuy in northern Peru, Apurimac and Ayacucho in southern Peru, La Paz province in western Bolivia, and Potosí in the south of Bolivia (1). 

In Peru, the most important site for the Queen of the Andes is Titankayoc-Chanchayoc in Ayacucho, which supports the vast majority of the global population. Bolivia’s largest known community of the Queen of the Andes is in Rodeo, Arani province (1) (4). 

Occurring at elevations between 3,000 and 4,800 metres, the Queen of the Andes is found in areas of sloping, rocky ground that are well drained. The climate in such areas tends to be very cold, with temperatures occasionally dropping to as low as -20 degrees Celsius. Most rain, hail and snow falls between October and March (1). 

Inhabiting harsh, high-altitude environments, the Queen of the Andes displays a number of adaptations to this extreme environment. In particular, it produces a chemical in its sap that acts as an ‘anti-freeze’ and allows it to survive the huge temperature variations that exist between night and day (2). 

The Queen of the Andes is a monocarpic species, meaning that it dies after it flowers and fruits for the first time (3). On the rare occasion that it does flower, dozens of hummingbirds gather to feed on the brief bonanza of nectar (2). Mature plants produce as many as 8 to 12 million seeds. However, if conditions are less than suitable at the time of dispersal, few seeds will survive to germinate, as they may not survive longer than a few months in damp soil. This means that a plant that is more than a century old may never actually reproduce successfully (4). 

The high Peruvian Andes have suffered thousands of years of heavy human impact through vegetation destruction, grazing by livestock, fires, and the introduction of exotic species (5). Today, the Queen of the Andes has an extremely fragmented distribution, with many populations comprising just a few hundred individuals, or even less. Cattle are often allowed to roam freely in this species’ habitat, which results in the trampling or consumption of young plants, hindering reproduction. Fires are often used to create farmland, as well as to gain access to the starch in this plant’s trunk to feed cattle, indiscriminately destroying all vegetation in the area (1) (4). 

Compounding these threats, the Queen of the Andes has been found to have low genetic variation, probably resulting from inbreeding in small populations. This hinders this species’ ability to adapt to human threats and, perhaps most pertinently, global climate change (4) (5). The lower altitude limits of tropical alpine vegetation in the Andes is predicted to rise more rapidly in future years, causing additional stress to alpine species with a fragmented distribution (4). 

Due to its high proportion or rare and endemic plant species, the Andean region is regarded as being a “hyperhot” priority for plant conservation, meaning action is urgently required to preserve this unique ecosystem and its important vegetation. Any conservation action in the Andes cannot fail to consider the need to conserve the Queen of the Andes, perhaps the most conspicuous and charismatic member of the Andean floral community (5). 

A conservation priority for the Queen of the Andes is the development of ex-situ conservation projects, particularly in light of its low genetic diversity. Around two dozen, mainly small specimens are already contained in botanical gardens, and these specimens should be supplemented by collections from unrelated populations. Steps should also be taken to learn more about this species’ biology so that informed conservation measures may be implemented in future (1) (5). 

The Queen of the Andes is officially classified as Endangered in Peru. However, in practice there is little enforcement of this, and there is little evidence of legal enforcement outside of one National Park. Consequently, the law should be strengthened and enforced. There is also the opportunity for the Peruvian authorities to promote the Queen of the Andes’ populations as a tourist attraction and, thereby, raise awareness of this species’ value. In addition, introducing this species into international botanical gardens as a landscaping plant will also raise its profile (1). 

Find out more about the Queen of the Andes:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Walker, B., Lloyd, H. and Cheshire, G. (2007) Peruvian Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide to the High Andes. Bradt Travel Guides, England.
  3. San Francisco Botanical Garden - Queen of the Andes (April, 2011)
    http://www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/news/pr/puya-raimondii.htm
  4. McNamara, A. (2010) Climate Change: Vulnerability of Migratory Species. A Project Report for the CMS 16thScientific Council Meeting. Zoological Society of London, London.
  5. Sgorbati, S. et al. (2004) A survey of genetic diversity and reproductive biology of Puya raimondii (Bromeliaceae), the endangered Queen of the Andes. Plant Biology, 6: 222-230.