Chilean Adventure: Excerpts from a Travel Diary

By: Kathy Musial

Kathy Musial is curator of living collections at the Huntington Botanical Gardens where she has worked for more than twenty-five…

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Sheets of annual patas de guanaco (Calandrinia litoralis and Cistanthe longiscapa), yellow and pink respectively, along the road south of Bahia Inglesa. Author’s photographs

Sheets of annual patas de guanaco (Calandrinia litoralis and Cistanthe longiscapa), yellow and pink respectively, along the road south of Bahia Inglesa. Author’s photographs

I traveled to Chile in September 2010 on a scouting trip for the 2011 Pacific Horticulture tour and kept a daily journal of the trip to post while I was traveling and, hopefully, generate interest in the tour. Helping me there were our travel agent in situ Marcela Piddo and her husband Jaime Drougett of Extremo Norte Expediciones; Marcela’s brother-in-law Jean-Pierre Bettoni, who was my guide and driver north of Santiago; and Estela M Cardeza Davis and Antonia Echenique of Santiago’s new Chagual Botanic Garden.

Unlike most botanical tours to Chile, which journey south of Santiago to the temperate rainforest and the Lake District, I wanted to focus on Chile’s mediterranean-climate region (centered on Santiago) and on the semidesert area to its north known as “Norte Chico.” Our Pacific Horticulture tour will also venture south of Santiago, where the matorral (Chile’s mediterranean shrub vegetation) transitions to taller forest and eventually Valdivian rainforest farther south, to see the pehuén or monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), Chile’s iconic conifer.

Pehuén or monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) in Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta

Pehuén or monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) in Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta

September 10

Awakened in the town of Angol (350 miles south of Santiago) this morning by a flock of parrots—just like home. The day was sunny and cool, the sunny part of which boded well for our excursion to Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta. The park protects the last remaining coastal forest of pehuén, among the most northerly stands of the species. We were greeted upon arrival by the park ranger, who told us the park had just reopened for the season the day before. Even though the park’s elevations are not particularly high, the latitude (approximately 38° south) ensures that it receives ample snow in winter.

En route to the pehuéns, other trees, many still leafless, were ethereally draped with the Chilean version of Spanish moss, here not a Tillandsia but a real beard-moss or barba de viejo (Usnea barbata). Five of Chile’s ten species of southern beech (Nothofagus) are major components of this forest; four species here are deciduous. We hiked as far as “Arbor Millenario,” the 1,000-year-old pehuén.

September 13

We took the interpretive trail up a hill at Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas where puyas were growing amidst the southern beeches, and the flatland below was covered with Fabiana imbricata (not in bloom yet). Sophora macrocarpa was flowering bright yellow along the road as we left.

Later, we were greeted by a glorious hillside of columnar cactus (Trichocereus chiloensis). The landscape below was reminiscent of California, with boldo (Peumus boldus) substituting for coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). But columnar cacti don’t grow with oaks in the California landscape, nor do puyas, of which there were large colonies on this hillside along with the cacti.

Añañuca de fuego (Phycella ignea) in Reserva Nacional Río Clarillo

Añañuca de fuego (Phycella ignea) in Reserva Nacional Río Clarillo

September 14

Today, we met up with Estela Cardeza Davis, her husband Diego, and their friend Gloria, a landscape architect, at Reserva Nacional Río Clarillo, where we had a walk on a labeled interpretive trail. Typical matorral vegetation is present here, and the overall landscape looks much like the chaparral of Southern California, with the addition of cacti, puyas, and ephedras. Saw the first of the many amaryllids (here known as añañucas), añañuca de fuego (Phycella ignea).

September 16

I’ve shifted from the forests of the south to the desert of the north, and the only thing that is the same is that it is cold here, too. It is, of course, late winter; our 2011 tour will be almost a month later, further into spring.

We are staying two nights in Bahia Inglesa, a small seaside town west of Copiapo. At the edge of the Atacama Desert, this is the northernmost part of the Norte Chico. Copiapo is the heart of the mining activity in the Atacama. The mining is much diminished from previous years, but the Atacama is still home to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, Chuquicamata, near Calama.

A low woodland of espino (Acacia caven) lined the road west from Copiapo. Here it was in full bloom and in leaf, unlike the still-leafless ones we saw south of Santiago. We were headed north to Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, taking a side trip to Quebrada El Leon on the eastern side of the Ruta Panamericana (Ruta 5).

Sophora macrocarpa in Reserva Nacional Río Clarillo

Sophora macrocarpa in Reserva Nacional Río Clarillo

We drove in as far as we could on the dirt road through a broad wash (quebrada) flanked by the Sierra Pajonales and the Sierra Los Leones. I spotted wands of bright yellow Argylia radiata waving in the wind and small carpets of Cistanthe longiscapa. As we neared the mountains, thin columnar cacti appeared (Echinopsis coquimbana and E. deserticola, occurring together here). The sides of the ravine were covered with large boulders sheltering the flora; it looked just like Anza Borrego back in California. The stream coming from the mountains, which may have flowed out to sea during the rain, disappeared into the sand here. Among the boulders were Alstroemeria violacea, a small shrubby white-flowered species of Nolana, and Euphorbia lactiflua, a shrub with attractive cream-colored bracts.

On to Pan de Azucar, which preserves some of Chile’s most spectacular coastal scenery, with steep mountains reminiscent of California’s Big Sur, but with a desert vegetation rather than forest. The Atacama Desert meets the cold Pacific Ocean here, and these coastal mountains trap plant-sustaining moisture from the frequent fogs. This is one of the best remaining coastal fog desert and lomas formations in northern Chile; rainfall is virtually absent, but, in the rare years (such as this one) with good winter rains, wildflowers abound among the abundant mounds of spiny softballs, which are actually a genus of cactus (Copiopoa).

A curious ground-covering relative of Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia chilensis) at Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe

A curious ground-covering relative of Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia chilensis) at Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe

As we drove east through the park toward Ruta 5, and the sun disappeared behind the hills, so did the flowers, and then, eventually, even the shrubs. The fog doesn’t penetrate to the inland side of the hills, and the near-total absence of moisture (a fogshadow) means a virtually complete absence of vegetation; the landscape now was as barren and stark as the moon. The Atacama is, after all, the world’s driest desert, parts of which have never felt a raindrop.

September 17

The desert is flowering, undoubtedly the result of 400% of the normal rainfall in the antipodian 2010 winter here. Monochrome swaths alternated with multicolored flower gardens, reminiscent of South Africa’s Namaqualand. There was so much to see that we stopped every few kilometers. Yellow and pink annual patas de guanaco (Calandrinia litoralis and Cistanthe longiscapa, respectively) alternated with sky-blue or white celestina (Zephyra elegans) and the first añañuca amarilla (Rhodophiala bagnoldii).

September 18

<em>Leontochir ovallei</em>, an alstroemeria relative at Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe

Leontochir ovallei, an alstroemeria relative at Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe

On September 18, 1810, Chileans declared their independence from Spain, and then, from 1810 to 1818, fought a war to defend it, led by Bernardo O’Higgins, revered as the liberator and father of the new nation.

On September 18, 2010, it seemed fitting that we would go in search of a Chilean floral holy grail: the garra de león or lion’s paw (Leontochir ovallei). This relative of Alstroemeria and Bomarea is considered endangered and is found in only a few places generally centered around Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe. We had been looking for it yesterday to no avail, despite good directions in one of our books.

The rangers drew a map with better directions. I had been looking up on the rocks; it turned out they were down in the washes. At the prescribed spot, Jean-Pierre spied the first one in the distance; I confirmed that sighting with binoculars before we parked, jumped out, and scrambled up the wash. Once we saw the first one, we saw many, and walked up the wash toward the ravine in hopes of finding the rare yellow-flowered form. No luck, but we admired the many orejas de zorro, or fox ears (Aristolochia chilensis), and other colorful plants that were in abundance.

A hillside of columnar cacti (Eulychnia acida) along the road to Parque Nacional Bosque de Fray Jorge

A hillside of columnar cacti (Eulychnia acida) along the road to Parque Nacional Bosque de Fray Jorge

September 19

The only place on today’s agenda was Parque Nacional Bosque de Fray Jorge, where the semiarid desert meets moist forest. The relict moist Valvidian forest here, with vegetation more typical of hundreds of kilometers south, is a small remnant in this semidesert area from a wetter period in Chile’s geologic history, when this type of moist forest covered much more of the country. Fray Jorge’s forest is dependent on the camanchaca, the coastal fog that condenses on the steep escarpment.

Our drive from Ovalle took us through the Río Limari valley; like many of Chile’s river valleys, it was an agricultural zone with avocados, papayas, and the grapes from which the pisco liquor (a muscatel grape brandy) is distilled. We crossed Ruta 5 into a pastoral scene of modest haciendas (ranches) before reaching the park. Large columns of Eulychnia acida transitioned to a dense low scrub with Perityle emoryi, a member of a genus in the Asteraceae that is also native to western North America. Puya chilensis, one of many terrestrial bromeliads known here as chaguals, were just starting to bloom. Numerous geophytes occur here, including añañuca rosa (Rhodophiala phycelloides), which were almost past, but plenty of blue wands of Pasithea caerulea, in peak bloom, were waving in the wind.

One of many species of chagual (Puya venusta), a terrestrial bromeliad, at Cerro La Cruz, Zapallar

One of many species of chagual (Puya venusta), a terrestrial bromeliad, at Cerro La Cruz, Zapallar

September 21

We arrived last night at El Pangue, the family compound of Antonia Echenique, near the resort town of Zapellar. Though dark when we arrived, I knew we were right on the beach; that was confirmed this morning when I looked out my window. The property included houses on either side, all under introduced Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa); I could have been in Carmel.

The fog drifted here and there at Quebrada El Tigre, a nearby Nature Conservancy reserve. We hiked on an easy trail to the tall forest of olivillo (Aextoxicon punctatum) and belloto del norte (Beilschmiedia miersii) among small trailside meadows of violeta de hojas largas (Tecophilaea violiflora). But the prizes here were the pico de loro orchids (Gavilea sinuata) and the exceptionally tall azucenas rojas (Phycella bicolor), along with many other geophtyes.

At El Pangue, I explored the seaside flora; the carpets of Nolana paradoxa on the rocks gave me a big clue as to why we can’t grow it at the Huntington. Amazing colonies of a cylindrical cactus (Neoporteria subgibbosa), growing right on the rocks, were just beginning to flower. Chaguals were in full bloom; I finally saw the giant hummingbird alight on one, but wasn’t fast enough with the camera.

At nearby Cerro La Cruz, we saw even more amazing seaside vegetation. Here a different chagual (Puya venusta) covered the slopes, and a rare myrtle relative (Myrceugenia rufa) was in profuse bloom.

September 22

Today we visited a special place, Parque Nacional La Campana, which protects the finest remaining stands of Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis). The palms occur here among typical matorral vegetation, with soap-bark tree (Quillaja saponaria), Lithraea caustica, Adesmia arborea, and others. The Chilean matorral vegetation is remarkably analogous to the California chaparral, and whole books have been written on the subject. The difference here is the presence of cacti (tall Echinopsis chilensis) and, at this site, palms. The palms grow in the moister quebradas as well as on the dry hillsides and ridges.

Argylia radiata (orange form) along Carrizal Bajo-Vallenar road

Argylia radiata (orange form) along Carrizal Bajo-Vallenar road

September 23

Back in Santiago for an appointment with Juan Grimm, Chile’s most renowned landscape architect. I presented him with a book about the Huntington Botanical Gardens, with which he was not familiar and was duly impressed. He showed me a program about his projects, and when the view of the circular pool at his own garden ‘Bahia Azul’ overlooking the sea at Los Vilos appeared, I remarked that it reminded me of Thomas Church, and proclaimed Juan the new Thomas Church, which seemed to please him. We discussed gardens of his to visit on the Pacific Horticulture tour, and he invited us to visit Bahia Azul, even if he were away traveling at the time.

September 24

Visited Jardín Botánico Chagual this morning. The idea for the garden was conceived many years ago by Antonia Echenique, Maria Victoria Legassa, and Estela Cardeza Davis. The garden is still in the early stages, and, like gardens the world over, funding and staffing are perennial issues. They showed me the master plan and model for the forty-three-hectare garden in Parque Metropolitano. The garden will feature native Chilean plants, as well as a “homoclimatic” garden showcasing the flora of the world’s five mediterranean-climate regions. These three women have traveled to each of those regions to better understand their floras. Antonia is now the garden’s executive director, and looks forward to hosting our tour next year.

This trip was an enormous success in every way possible. The landscape was even more fantastic than I imagined, from the Atacama and the Desierto Florido to La Araucanía and the pehuén forests. Made many new friends and enjoyed the time with old ones. I couldn’t have asked for better help and company, from Jaime (with Marcela just a cell phone call away) to Jean-Pierre to Estela and Antonia.