Puya sp.

And another entry today from UBC Botanical Garden’s Eric La Fountaine, responsible for both the photograph and the write-up. Eric writes:

Spontaneous plant combustion? The photograph shows the charred remains of a large colony of puya, either Puya chilensis or Puya berteroniana. Both are Chilean endemics. Local botanists who I toured with said that this sight can be witnessed occasionally in the wild. The curiosity is that only the puya are burned–no sign of fire damage occurs around the colony. When the phenomenon is observed, it appears to only occur in mature colonies. Some theorize that a type of spontaneous combustion involving chemicals in the mature plants, possibly ignited by the intense sun, is involved. Close inspection of the material revealed a delicate charcoal, like something that had smoldered without flame. Unfortunately, I can not find any substantiation or even discussion of this phenomenon.

Puya are known for their unearthly coloured flowers. These two Chilean species, locally known as chagual, are fairly common in central Chile. They are uncommon in cultivation, but can be grown in other areas, Puya berteroniana being the better candidate in temperate areas as it is more cold tolerant. ChileBosque has nice photos of both Puya chilensis and Puya berteroniana.

Burned Puya species

28 responses to “Puya sp.”

  1. Viola

    Fascinating… to think this plant can go from that with showy flowers to something so burned and desolate looking. Let’s hope that someone will write more on this subject. Thank you for this choice of subject, Eric and Daniel.
    And welcome back, Daniel. BPotD is surely one of life’s daily pleasures and treasures.

  2. Lynne

    This sure tickles the imagination!

  3. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    Nothing like a mystery… and a somewhat spooky one. I can hear the theme music from Twilight Zone.
    As the links show, it’s a very striking, interesting plant with lovely flowers.

  4. Vicki

    Just amazing and thank you for another eye-opening, mind expanding experience!!!

  5. Connie

    Thanks for this website, this post, and these links. You are my favorite RSS. I learn something from you every day, and you bring me joy in your photos.

  6. Doug Mongerson

    What?! Puya self combusting? Sounds unlikely. There must be another expalantion.

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer

    I’m wondering if it has anything to do with seed germination. I know of many plants that require fire to germinate: could puya be one that makes its own?

  8. wendy

    What an idea. Self-immolation as germination. The plant world is so often stranger than fiction that our most outlandish ideas are sometimes not wild enough.

  9. Irma

    “It gets curioser and curioser” as Alice would have said. Nature is truly magnificent and your site is magnificent too and it brings so much joy and amazement everyday

  10. Mandy Macdonald

    Self-immolation as germination — happens in Australia too, doesn’t it? Certainly there are plants that need the heat of bushfires to be able to germinate. Wonderful flowers — ChileBosque an excellent site too.

  11. Steven

    I encountered the same story told about spontaneous combustion the giant Puya raimondii in Peru.

  12. frances o'halloran

    what a small world~ i was reading the posts and read about perhaps puya creating its own fire for germination, which was what i was thinking and i saw that a lady named lucy kemnitzer posted this. . is this my cousin lucy? i wish there were some way to link up with other posters. . .can anyone help?
    i would love to reconnect with her

  13. elizabeth a airhart

    perhaps some kind of under ground
    gas or just the above ground life
    that uses this plant then the heat
    causes the charcoal effect
    or we have found big foot

  14. lisa

    bigfoot with matches? Pretty interesting plant!

  15. Zeb

    Hmmm Big foot self combusting manure perhaps. There are many combustables in nature. I wonder what temperature it gets as it smolders. I would LOVE to see its floral splendor. Any chance of pics of that?

  16. Daniel in Princeton

    I’m doing research for my PhD thesis in that area of Chile (including in the National Park where the picture was taken), and I’ve heard the same story about Puya and some cacti. However, nobody that I’ve talked to has ever seen anything actually burning, and the is no clear mechanism at all for ignition. I think it’s a myth and that what we are seeing is photodecomposition in a very dry environment (less than 100mm of annual rainfall). When it’s too dry for much microbial activity (and Puya can’t be a very good substrate for decomposers), UV light can be a major force in the breaking down of dead material, and I think the result will look a lot like burning. Less dramatic than self-combustion, but still really interesting as a phenomenon.

  17. Stacey

    This may be a silly comment since the phenomenon seems fairly well researched but I’ve seen similar sites here in Mexico with species of Dasylirion, with nothing remaining but charred trunks. I’ve never seen one actually on fire but when I ask locals they say herders use them to start fires to cook lunch since the old leaves lite rapidly and later make good coals for cooking. Also, many herders are young kids and will lite these species just for fun. Unfortunately.

  18. elizabeth a airhart

    google images have several pages of the above plant and the mountains where they grow

  19. Susan Ferguson

    Lightening strikes? Enough taller than the surrounding landscape to function as lightening rods?

  20. phillip

    lest we will forget…”will o’the whisp”…
    spontaneous combustion of marsh swamp gases…

  21. Eric La Fountaine

    The opening question was meant to be provocative, not necessarily explanatory. I am happy to see that others do report knowledge of this phenomenon–I could find nothing online. It seems very unlikely that fires were started by humans in this National Park and I saw no evidence of disturbance around the burned colony. Daniel in Princeton may have a better theory. I wish I had inspected the material more closely when I had the opportunity, but I note even from the photo that the char is not just on the top surface. I did touch the debris. It was like very delicate flaky charcoal. It seemed that rain would wash it away–although it rarely rains in the park. This area is exposed to frequent fogs however.

    I had thought about lightning as well. The occurrence in mature colonies, that would have tall flower spikes in an environment where little else could exceed their height favors this theory. Perhaps the chemistry of the plant makes it smolder, but not burn? Time and research will tell the story.

  22. beverley bowhay

    Can this species be related to the “burning bush” that stopped Moses in his tracks?

  23. MercyJoy

    Neat. It looks like something out of Star Wars.
    Beverly Bowhay,
    Possibly. Though the Bible makes it sound like it was an unearthly occurrence that wouldn’t have happened without God’s Spirit.
    (To anyone who doesn’t believe in God, please don’t be offended. I am simply giving my input on a question.)

  24. tyltec

    I’m wondering if natural nitrate deposits may be building up in the plants over time. Nitrates promote combustion and are sometimes used to assist in burning out tree stumps.

  25. Roy Forster

    no one seems to have mentioned the gas plant,Dictamnus albus,which under certain conditions[humidity&calm] produces a flamable gas.I have photographed the event.The plant may appear briefly on fire but is unharmed.If a similar phenomenon were to happen in extreme dry conditions prhaps a plant could smoulder.

  26. Harry E.Luther

    Its been my experience that the locals burn puyas all the time because; 1 they catch small animals, lambs, etc; 2 its cold; 3 they can. Ask anyone in a national park if they set something on fire and I doubt if they will admit to it. HEL

  27. Ian Barclay

    I saw Puyas that looked like this in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. I never suspected they had burned up – I just assumed that that was what they looked like when the whole plant dies of “old age” and the flaky texture is the natural texture of the dead tissues. It has to look like something, doesn’t it? As for the human interference theory, I think I see a cut stump at the lower left.
    Perhaps the thing to do would be to go outside with the lighter and see what happens if I try to torch one of my Puyas.

  28. DegreeFinders

    It looks like something out of a sci-fi horror movie, yet it’s so interesting that I just had to look again.

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