The flowering desert

Jane McGary
Mon, 10 Oct 2011 13:45:29 PDT
I've just returned from a trip to Chile's northern, mostly coastal 
area, where along with PBS members Gene Zielinski and Diane 
Whitehead, and Diane's partner Don, I enjoyed the full spate of the 
Desierto Florido, the legendary flowering that occurs after the rare 
years of good precipitation in the Atacama region. I'll try to 
prepare and post some photos for the PBS wiki over the next few months.

I had been to the area in 2002, a "wet" year (and in a dry year four 
years ago), but about 3 weeks later than we went this year, so I saw 
some different species. The only significant genera that were going 
to flower later were Alstroemeria and Mutisia. We saw vast displays 
of Leucocoryne, Rhodophiala, Pasithea, and Zephyra, as well as 
lesser-known bulbous genera such as Oziroe (syn. Fortunatia) and 
Pabellonia. A special treat was Placea amoena, close to Rhodophiala. 
Though only three species of Alstroemeria were in flower, the closely 
related Leontochir ovallei was in full bloom at the base of a slope. 
Finding these plants was made much easier by the "Rutas y senderos" 
(roads and trails) booklet that accompanies the Zona Norte volume of 
the series "Flora nativa de valor ornamental" by Riedemann, Aldunate, 
and Teillier. If you can't find a copy, I made an English translation 
of just the Rutas booklet that I can e-mail.

I took only 250 photos, but Diane and Gene took many more, and I hope 
they'll share them with PBS too. No photograph, however, could convey 
the experience of standing amid hills clothed in bands of pink, 
yellow, white, and pure blue, the millions of flowers bursting forth 
from bulbs or seeds that have probably lain dormant for nine years. 
As in the desert of southern California, even the annuals can be 
quite large plants at flowering, and many, especially the Nolana 
species, form spreading mats that enhances the colorful display. Some 
of the shrubs can flower in a dry year without leaves, but this year 
they have both flowers and leaves. The many cacti were mostly not 
quite in flower but were putting out ambitious new growth.

If this note makes anybody get on a plane to Santiago tomorrow, I 
won't be surprised. This spectacle is something every plant lover 
should see at least once.

Jane McGary
Portland, Oregon, USA

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