The Chilean Flora

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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The Chilean Flora

I arrived in Chile a few days ahead of the Pacific Horticulture tour group I was escorting in 2001. With a rental car from the airport, I headed due north, avoiding the hustle and bustle of Santiago. My destination was La Campana where I would see the Chilean palms (Jubaea chilensis) that I so loved in California parks and gardens. They covered more of the landscape than I had expected—from streamside to mountain ridges here in the park, one of only two preserves where they can still be found growing naturally. The surrounding plant community looked just like the chaparral of Southern California, but with terrestrial bromeliads (Puya) and tall, columnar cacti mixed in with the typical sclerophyllous shrubs and oak-like trees

I made a spontaneous decision to drive to the top of the Andes on the road that heads east out of Santiago. After more than forty switchbacks, I was in ski resort territory at between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. It was early January, nearly the peak of summer in the high Andes, and the wildflower displays were unlike anything I had seen in the Rockies or the Sierra. Rocky, treeless meadows spread in every direction, filled with an astonishing array of herbaceous wildflowers, all screaming for my attention. Eight hours with a camera on a windless day made for one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

Not long after, our group was in southern Chile, tramping through great, dripping, temperate rain forests, captivated by the broadleaf and coniferous trees overhead and the jewel-like flowers growing on mossy rocks and tree trunks.

Having fallen in love with this diverse flora, it continues to surprise me—and others in the horticultural world—that there are so few Chilean plants grown in West Coast gardens. Some have made the transition: Alstroemeria, Azara microphylla, Embothrium coccineum, Escallonia, Gunnera, Lobelia tupa, Tropaeolum. But there are so many more…bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees of all kinds.

We hope that this year’s articles about the Chilean flora, by Kathy Musial, Matt Ritter, Chris Carmichael, Richie Steffen, and Scott Zona, will inspire you to consider a few Chilean plants for your own gardens.
Richard G Turner Jr