Diana Perowne's Plant Portraits


Written by Kathy Gray. Posted in News


Chile – that long thin South American country; it is 2,700 miles long but only 217 miles wide at its widest point. The mighty Southern Ocean is at its southern tip and the driest non polar desert in the world, the Atacama, meets Bolivia in the North.


Atacama Landscape

It’s western shores are washed by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes form a backbone to the East. It is not, therefore, surprising that in such a country there are many habitats and environments for the flora and fauna. The central area of Chile, around the capital Santiago, is one of only five regions in the world with a Mediterranean climate characterised by hot dry summers and warm, wet winters.  (Others are coastal California, the Western Cape of South Africa, southern and southwestern Australia and the Mediterranean basin). Central Chile is an excellent wine growing region – many of you, I am sure, will have drunk wine from the vineyards from the area. Plants that thrive in this climate include Bromiliads such as Puya venusta and Puya chilensis; they are often visited by hummingbirds.


Puya venusta

As you would expect, plants with leathery leaves abound including Pouteria spendens which is endemic to the area. Due to the current rates of habitat loss it is considered endangered. What you may not expect is to see plants of Alstroemeria species growing in what appears to be quite hostile, rocky places. This sort of environment shows so forcibly a plant’s determination to survive.

Alstroemeria violacea

The sandy shores of the Pacific offer plants such as Nolana paradoxa and Cistanthe grandiflora; both plants have the fleshy, water retaining leaves that helps them survive the dry hot summers.  


Nolana paradoxa

Cistanthe grandiflora                                                                                                                     

Nearby you can find the moustached orchid, Bipinulla fimbriata and you may also be lucky enough to see the smallest otter in the world, the Marine Otter.

Marine Otter

Inland one finds La Campana National Park, visited by Charles Darwin in August 1834. He climbed the bell shaped mountain and declared ‘Here you can see Chile and its boundaries, the Andes and the Pacific, as if in a map’. This National Park is home to a stand of Jubaea chilensis – the Chilean Wine Palm which is endemic to the area and considered vulnerable; it is the second most massive extant palm species. The sap can be used to make palm wine and palm syrup but the whole tree has to be felled so the practice is restricted by legal protection.  Its small coconut like seeds are beloved by the small scurrying rodent called a Dagu.

Jubaea chilensis

Also found here is the holoparasitic plant Tristerix aphylla or the cactus mistletoe. If any of you watched the David Attenborough programme ‘The Green Planet’ you will have seen the amazing way this plant parasitizes the cactus host.

Further north on a mountain ridge, in the cloud cover and almost at the edge of the Atacama is the Bosque Fray Gorge National Park – a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. This park is known for having the northernmost Valdivian temperate rain forest, characterised by dense understories of bamboos, ferns and for being mostly dominated by evergreen, angiosperm trees, some deciduous trees and conifers.  Plants such as Drimys winteri, Senecio planiflorus and Griselina scandens are found there.

Griselina scandens

This is a really bizarre habitat that depends entirely on the condensation of the coastal fog know as the Camanchaca, which hangs on the mountain slopes and moistens the vegetation, allowing what is known as a hydrophilic forest to survive despite being surrounded by arid, cactus covered hillsides.

Heading even further north, on the Pan American Highway, the Atacama asserts itself and you can see ‘meadows’ of lomas vegetation. Again, these plants are watered by the coastal fog – known also as mist oasis, but how different they are to the forest plants at Fray Gorge.

Fray Gorge National Park

Cactus abound, including many different species of Copiapoa.

Copiapoa dealbata                                                                                                                                     

Copiapoa sp.

You can travel for 70 odd miles, stopping every few miles and you will find different species of this cactus. Large examples are, perhaps, up to 200 years old and quite magnificent. When they die, however, they resemble the ashes of an old bonfire.  Conversely, you will find areas of flowers, perhaps in a gorge that has received enough moisture to promote flowering, such as the diminutive Clelome chilensis and Solanum chilensis.

Clelome chilensis                                                                                                                                         

Solanum chilensis

As you continue north the Atacama looks like most people’s idea of a desert as you cross the line of the Tropic of Capricorn. Even here, though, plants survive, such as Lupinus oreophilus and Cistanthe amaranthoides.

Lupinus oreophilus                                                                                                                                      

Cistanthe amaranthoides

However, at times, especially at sunset, this desert can present as one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.  Now the road begins to climb as you head towards the Altiplano – the most extensive area of high plateau outside of Tibet, with an average height of 12,300 ft. Here the smallest of the camelids can be seen – the Vicuna browsing on the grasses such as Stipa and Festuca.


Having travelled this far north, it is worth returning to Santiago in order to fly 416 miles west to Robinson Crusoe Island – part of the Juan Fernandez Islands. Although it was discovered by the Spanish in 1574, it was here, of course, that Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704 for 4 years and 4 months and gave rise to Daniel Defoe's book. The island comprises steep volcanic peaks that rise out of the Pacific Ocean. It has a subtropical climate and of the 285 native plant species, 144 are endemic.  Sadly, though, many are threatened, mainly by introduced plants such as the Rubus genus.

Erigeron fernadezianum with invasive Rubus

There are a number of endemic ferns and gunnera, including Blechnum shottii and Gunnera bracteata along with Dendroseris littoralis -  the Cabbage Tree – which remains critically endangered.

Gunnera bracteata

It is thought that Selkirk would have eaten the leaves of this plant in his efforts to survive. There is also the most beautiful endemic hummingbird – the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. Oh, and this is definitely the place to go if you enjoy eating fish and especially lobster as the islanders make their living from fishing, specialising in lobster!

Juan Fernandez Firecrown

Back again to Santiago and then travel south to the island of Chiloe. It is the second largest island in South America and is very different from the north being cooler, wetter and greener. It also has areas which have experienced extensive periods of isolation from other forested ecoregions so that there is substantial endemism. It is here that you will find a Valdivian temperate rain forest in its rightful place, rather than on the edge of a desert nearly 800 miles to the north. It’s the most wonderful place in which to walk with waterfalls and beautiful trees, ferns, gunnera and much more.

Waterfall in Southern Temperate Valdivian Rainforest

Plants that we recognise and grow here include Crinodendron hookerianum and Embothrium coccineum, along with Gunnera tinctoria.

Crinodendron hookerianum                                                                                                                         

Embothrium coccineum

There are also examples of massive and ancient Podocarpus nubigenus – perhaps 800 years old.

Podocarpus nubigenus

Chiloe is home to the smallest deer in the world – the diminutive Pudu and, if you like boats, it is worth taking a pelagic trip to see some of the impressive seabirds including Albatross and also Penguins – both Humboldt and Megallenic.


Humboldt Penguins

Chiloe and Peru have, over many, many years had their disagreements, usually about borders and who makes the best Pisco sours – a really delicious cocktail! However, one disagreement concerns potatoes. Peruvians say that the humble spud comes from an area near Lake Titicaca. However, researchers in Chile have found evidence showing human potato consumption as far back as 14,000 years ago in southern Chile. Today, 99% of all European potato varieties can be traced back to Chilean origin, specifically, the island of Chiloe. Food for thought next time you are eating your potatoes!.

Finally, you may wish to fly much further west – 2,700 miles to be precise, to Easter Island or Rapa Nui as it is now known. Settled by Polynesians, most probably from the Marquesas Islands between 800 and 1100 AD, the island was formed by 3 volcanic eruptions. Once upon a time it was covered in sub tropical forest and it is, of course, famous for the Moai statues who represented deified ancestors. It was their role to harness energy or mana to protect the villages and the people.

Moai Statues

The island was annexed by Chile in 1888. Nowadays, the vegetation is that which has been introduced as over the years the early settlers stripped the land of all the native vegetation. Why that happened and why the Moai were toppled over – something that had to have been done by man, not a natural disaster, is not known, although many theories remain. These days, a number of the Moai have been restored to stand once again on their platforms and efforts are being made to introduce plants that would have been there originally such as Sophora toromiro. Let us hope that those efforts are successful.

Kathy Gray