Bulbs in northern Chile

Jane McGary janemcgary@earthlink.net
Sat, 02 Nov 2002 16:46:02 PST
This is just a brief note of what I hope to write up for a future issue of
the "Rock Garden Quarterly." Apologies to the editors of "Bulbs" and "The
Bulb Garden," but the one I edit is first in line!

I have just returned from three weeks traveling in Chile, mostly north of
Santiago in Regions II, III, and IV -- from Valparaiso in the south, to
Antofogasta in the north. Since I was traveling with someone who had little
interest in plants but wished to find interesting minerals, we had to make
some forays into the interior; however, most of the interesting plants I
saw were near the coast. Later in the year, there is much to see in the
Andes, but this time I saw only a few (but good) snowmelt plants in bloom

The vegetation of the coastal strip is supported by moisture from fogs,
which enveloped us much of the time we were there. As a former San
Franciscan I don't mind being in fog, but my traveling companion found it
offensive and complained a lot about my wish to remain in that area.
Elsewhere, rain is infrequent, but this year there were unusually heavy
rains triggered by El Nino. This stimulates the phenomenon known as the
Desierto Florido 'flowering desert', much as wet winters do in the deserts
of southern California. Where the terrain had not been entirely degraded by
grazing, large fields of flowers, many of them annuals, swept on to the
horizon. Most prominent were magenta Calandrinia speciosa and similar tall
species, rose-pink Cristaria (Malvaceae) species, and Argylia radiata, a
yellow/brown/orange member of the Bignoniaceae. Many cacti were also in
flower and I was particularly taken with Copiapoa cinerascens, a large
grayish ball cactus. The genus Nolana (Nolanaceae, but similar to
Convolvulus of Petunia in flower form) is remarkably varied here, from
superb foliage mats with insignificant flowers, to trailing plants with
huge showy pale or bright blue blossoms, to subshrubs. All these plants
would be suitable for coastal California.

The most rewarding part in terms of geophytes was the wealth of
Alstroemeria species. I photographed A. kingii, paupercula, leporina,
sierrae, two subspecies of A. pulchra, and one with bright green succulent
leaves that I have not identified yet. In the Andean precordillera I saw
emerging plants that I supposed to be A. pallida, A. umbellata, and one of
the small ones with very twisted leaves.

I don't know if Aristolochia can be considered a geophyte, but it was
fascinating to see A. chilensis in both dark brown and yellow-green forms,
the latter near the coast the former more inland.

There were fields dotted with hundreds of thousands of Rhodophiala
bagnoldii, a large yellow-flowered species. R. laeta is supposed to be in
the area, and its photographs were often displayed in hotels, etc., but
when I asked where it grew, the answer was always "Around [place somewhere

Leucocoryne coquimbensis was common in both white and pale blue forms. I
also saw L. violascens and L. ixioides. A similar plant but much more
impressive was Calydorea xiphioides, with bright violet, gold-centered
large flowers. I saw it in only one spot and the plant manual says it is
becoming rare because of being dug for its edible bulbs.

Pasithea caerulea, a rather tall, robust plant with cobalt-blue flowers,
grows both on the coast in fairly far inland. The inland plants I saw
seemed larger. This is definitely one to try in gardens.

Every trip has a "grail" plant and this one was Leontochir ovallei, an
Alstroemeria relative, monotypic genus, and rare endemic. It grows in
Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, and I found it growing from a crevice in a
rocky side canyon, fortunately in perfect bloom. With half a roll of film
devoted to it, I hope at least one photo turns out well.... It resembles a
lax-stemmed Alstro, very leafy, with the flowers in a congested umbel. They
are deep red and tubular; yellow forms also exist. Its rarity must be due
in part to grazing animals, especially goats, which are the bane of the
Chilean flora.

Jane McGary
NW Oregon

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