Attack of the sheep-eating plants

Date posted: 20 September 2017

If you’re thinking of bringing your pet sheep into Adelaide Botanic Garden soon – think again. Our infamous “sheep-eating” plants, Puya chilensis, are flowering and they’re thirsty for blood. Or so the story goes.

Hailing from the arid hillsides of Chile, you can’t miss these bromeliads – relatives of the pineapple – alongside our Amazon Waterlily Pavilion.

Blinding yellow flowers erupt from green spikes, like some other-worldly three-metre mace, atop a dense arrangement of leaves (called rosettes), which feature rather angry-looking spines.

It’s been said – in countless mainstream media stories over the past five years – that these spines allow the plant to trap birds, sheep and other small animals, and when the animal dies and decomposes the sinister Puya gets a hearty feed.

Much of this global attention can be attributed to a media release by the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society in June 2013, announcing that the RHS Garden Wisley’s Puya, which concealed a “gruesome secret”, was about to bloom.

An avalanche of coverage followed, including pieces from the BBC, The Huffington Post and Business Insider, buoyed by the fact the plants can apparently take up to 20 years to flower from seed (an editor’s dream – rare AND gory).

But at least one person was sceptical. Derek Barry, a journalist and blogger from Queensland, did some sleuthing and, in a blog post four days after the RHS’s announcement, said he couldn’t find any reputable sources to back up the “sheep-eating” claims.

“I’m no botanist but I could find no evidence… either in scholarly publications or from talking to scientists who work in the field,” Barry wrote.

His piece did, however, include an update – a response from a spokesperson at RHS, which noted prior mentions of the plant’s sheep-eating credentials, including one in Mabberley’s Plant-book, a comprehensive and internationally-renowned plant reference tome. The plot thickens.

The Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada is one of the latest botanic gardens to have a Puya chilensis bloom hit the headlines (May 2017), and RBG horticulturalist Alex Henderson was receptive yet non-committal to the sheep-eating theory.

He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s As It Happens radio show, “I don’t think there’s ever been a documented account of this, but I’ve read information and literature to the effect that shepherds in Chile will actually burn the plant to protect the flocks.”

“It’s also noted in a couple very, very renowned scientific texts... I was actually working with the plant the other day and I nearly cut my hand open on it, so I can imagine if you got caught in that you would never, ever get out again.”

Ultimately, while the authenticity of the Puya chilensis’ much-reported ghastly “sheep-eating” tendencies is perhaps a tad murky (we’ll keep investigating and let you know whether more information comes to light), there’s no doubting they’re fascinating and gorgeous plants.

Although we’re still advising you to leave your sheep at home during your visit – just in case.