Botanical adventures in Chile
Whilst venturing into Chile during a period of considerable civil unrest might be considered foolhardy, the reality was quite different.
Chile was an astonishing country with so many varying terrains, climates and habitats, flora and fauna. We visited the three main regions (The Atacama Desert, Patagonia and the Lake District) as well as the capital, Santiago.
Three main themes emerged from my obsessive note and photo taking of Chilean flora and fauna:
The Chilean origin of many of our familiar garden plants
The herbal, medicinal and culinary use of many plants handed down over thousands of years by Chilean regional tribes such as the Mapuche and Likan-antai.
The change in flora from one geographical location to the next was striking. We started our adventure in Patagonia, the southernmost extreme of Chile pointing down to Antartica. Vast mountains, lakes and continuous powerful wind across an (initially) barren landscape. On closer inspection, the area gifted many beautifully adapted Alpine miniatures clinging to the rocky outcrops. Many of these squat shrubs had delicious edible berries used by the locals in food and medicine such as the Calafate, which has a delicious blueberry/blackberry taste in desserts and more importantly in the Pisco Sour Calafate Cocktail!
One omnipresent shrub was a small plant rounded into domes by the wind with a bright scarlet bloom called the Firebush. What was astonishing was that as we moved up to the temperate (almost European) climate of the chilean Lake District, the Firebush had adapted and flourished into a very large tree sending out its firework-like branches into the air.
Left: The Firebush in Patagonia
The Lake District, roughly half way up Chile, provided an extraordinary microclimate of Valdivian Rain Forest with trees which did not anchor their roots in soil, but a woven raft of their entangled roots hovering over the streams and lakes. Amazing plants flowered and fruited simultaneously and there were many plants revered as sacred by the native people such as the Canelo tree.
As we journeyed north towards the Equator and into the Atacama Desert (the most arid place on earth), my heart sank and thought my flower adventures over. However, nature proved herself resilient and adaptable.
Left: Prickly Pear Cactus
I came across Prickly Pear cactus and rock hugging succulents with gorgeous white bell spring blooms to adorn the desert and provide refreshment to the Llamas and lizards! The native Rica Rica plant which at first glance looked quite unremarkable but had a fragrant scent and taste of lemon, mint and rosemary combined. It is widely used in cooking and herbal remedies for digestion problems, stomach ache and altitude sickness (we were at some points at 4,500m above sea level, and that wasn't even on top of a mountain!). It is also the signature ingredient of the potent cocktail, Pisco Sour Rica Rica which is not for the timid! (Some were imbibed for research purposes only - you understand!).
Chilean Origin of Some of our Garden Plants
Chile often felt exotic and so different, but then again amazing familiarity would occasionally intrude. In the temperate Lake District area (and sometimes in Patagonia), we would see well-known plants from our English gardens growing in their original habitat; Fuchsia (giant trees! ), Lupin, Foxglove, Chrysanthemums, Mesembryanthemums, Camelias, Buttercups, Lavender, Hebe and Forget-Me -Not!
Chilean Plants familiar to English gardeners.
Widespread Use of traditional Chilean Plants
The natural bounty of Chile has been used widely by the Chilean people dating back thousands of years. The native tribes of Chile such as the Mapuche and the Likan-antai who traded extensively with the Incas. The tradition has continued into mainstream Chilean cooking and herbal remedy preparations.
In the Atacama region, Rica Rica, Pingo Pingo, Chanar, Manzanilla (Chamomile) and Cedron (Lemon Verbena) are all used alongside Mint, Eucalyptus and Rosemary.
In Patagonia, the Magellan Barberry (Calafate), Maqui (Chilean Wineberry), Chauchau Berry and strawberry flavoured Myrtle are all small berried shrubs used in desserts, jams, spirits and wines.
This list of amazing plants is by no means exhaustive, as I found when I purchased a small green guide (all in Chilean Spanish!) entitled "Ancestral Medicinal Herbs and Plants - Wisdom, Flavour and Health". Again the tantalising mixture of exotic alongside the familiar. This for me encapsulates the whole experience of Chile, which seems rather distant now in the midst of the English winter and festive season!
We will be celebrating this year with a Pisco Sour Rica Rica to bring a little South American warmth back this Christmas - perhaps you might?!
Sharing the floral love, Bryant & Bloom