Hand Pollination of ‘Sapphire Tower’ Helps Rare Plant Survive–Only Blooming Every 20 Years

At the Birmingham Botanical Gardens (BBG), a botanical marvel has unfolded as the elusive ‘Sapphire Tower,’ a bromeliad known scientifically as Puya alpestris, has burst into azure blooms after more than a decade of anticipation. Hailing from the Chilean Andes, where it thrives in the rarefied air above 6,000 feet, this distant cousin of the pineapple has captivated botanists and visitors alike. Transported to the Arid Glasshouse nearly two decades ago, the plant has chosen this moment to unveil its resplendent blossoms, resembling a tower adorned with sapphire jewels against the verdant backdrop. While not listed as endangered, the flowering of this specimen presents a unique opportunity for botanical conservationists to intervene through delicate hand pollination, ensuring the continuation of its genetic legacy.

In the absence of its natural pollinators, namely hummingbirds attracted to its nectar-laden blooms, the BBG’s dedicated team, led by Senior Glasshouse Horticulturist Alberto Trinco, has undertaken the task of manual pollination. Armed with paintbrushes, they delicately tap the stamens, facilitating the transfer of pollen and the potential for seed production. Trinco expresses both excitement and reverence for this slow-growing marvel, emphasizing the significance of securing its presence for future generations to marvel at. With each ephemeral bloom lasting mere days, witnessing this botanical rarity is akin to catching a fleeting celestial event, a testament to the patience and dedication of both scientists and visitors alike.

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