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Overview of Chilean Flora
The flora in Chile is very distinctive and interesting, compared to the flora of other countries. It is not so much the quantity of plant species that counts – it is estimated that Chile has only about 5000 to 6000 different species, which makes it look poor compared to some tropical counterparts, like Brazil, but the adaptability, uniqueness, and usefulness of Chilean plants makes them stand out on their own.
Chile has a very varied climate going from absolute dry, with no rain at all (less than 1 – 2 mm of rain per year) to soaking wet, up to 3000 - 4000 mm/year. The same applies to the altitude range (going from 0 to 6900 m), to temperature regimes (-30º C - + 35º C), air humidity (30%-100%), to daylight exposure (continental Chilean latitudes range from 18º to 55º; in summer, this means 17-18 hours of daylight at the southern continental tip of Chile, while in winter it means only 5-6 hours). And these environmental factors sometimes combine to give very unique combinations, like no rainfall at all with extreme, saturated humidity almost all year round.
That implies that the Chilean plants must adapt themselves to a wide variety of environmental conditions, which are quite often very harsh. This makes them excellent candidates for out-door propagation and growing in temperate and even northern climates of Europe and North America and also arid zones; the same can not be said about the exotic tropical plants which require very special growing conditions of temperature and humidity. Chile has lots of species which form the rainforest of the extreme south – able to tolerate snow cover and freezing temperatures for up to 3 – 4 month a year! What is more, many of the desert varieties can also live perfectly well in cold climates, because the Altiplano weather, although extremely dry, can throw cold spells of -10º C to -20º C, especially at night.
The Chilean plants are very special because of the geographic seclusion – Chile is not only a South American country, but a South American country separated from South America by high mountain ranges, very dry deserts, and glaciers which makes penetration and dissemination of new species so much more difficult (until the white man brought in all these European weeds like mulberry or wild rose, plants which contaminate and displace the native populations). That means that Chile has probably the largest number, in percentile terms, of endemic plants, i.e. plants which grow only in Chile. Just one example – the Alstroemeria genus, an exclusively South American phenomenon, has about 100 species, of which 49 grow in Chile; of these 49 about 40 are endemic and not found anywhere else in the world in wild conditions; for comparison, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru has only one endemic species each! There are thousands of plants which grow only in Chile, or, at best, in few areas of Argentina as well. According to one study, out of 5082 different Chilean species, 2561 are endemic, that is just above the 50 % mark (C. Marticorena, "Composición de la flora vascular de Chile," Flora silvestre de Chile (Jürke Grau & Georg Zizka (eds.)), Sonderheft 19, Palmengarten, 1992), p. 74).
A very high proportion of the Chilean plants have useful properties, either medicinal, nutritional, or industrial. Very roughly, of the larger plants (trees and bushes), about 50 % have or had useful applications.
The medicinal potential of the Chilean plants is yet almost untapped; but the local Indians, the Mapuches, have been using them as remedies for centuries and have found plants which have pharmaceutical effects for almost all clinical conditions. Many of these prescriptions were collected by religious figures and chroniclers of 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (see the bibliography for more details). Recently, more and more studies begin to appear, promoting medicinal values of the Chilean plants, but much has to be done yet to uncover (or better to say, rediscover) completely their potential.
Next, the nutritional aspect – many plants are edible and have excellent exotic tastes – think of the more common plants, like Murta (Ugni molinae) which is used to prepare jams, the Avellano nuts (Gevuina avellana), the Monkey tree nuts (Araucaria araucana), or the Berberis (Michay or Calafate in Spanish) varieties (Berberis chilensis var. chilensis, Berberis empetrifolia, Berberis microphylla, Berberis montana, Berberis rotundifolia, Berberis serrato-dentada, and many others - there are about 20 Berberis species in Chile) which have blue juicy berries with somewhat acid taste, or the wild currant (3 - 4 Ribes species, for instance Ribes magellanicum, Ribes gayanum). Next on the list of exotic tastes come the fruits of Fuchsia magellanica (excellent for jams!), the flowers produce sickening sweet nectar which is the preferred food for the local humming-birds, or the fruits of Pingo-pingo (Ephedra chilensis), with their honey-flavoured taste heightened by the spicy accent of the seeds – the combination of the fruit with the seeds in it has a taste somewhat similar to a jam with whole nuts! Or the white Chaura (Gaultheria pumila) which bears snow-white berries laden with sweet vaniline flavour. Actually, most Chauras are edible - and that includes Gaultheria phillyreifolia and Gaultheria caespitosa. Or think about the juicy hearts of Puyas (Puya chilensis and Puya berteroniana) and the sweet sap of the Palm trees (Jubae chilensis), for which both species became almost extinct! Finally, if you are in for some really strange things, how about the fresh, fleshy, minty taste of a green-coloured plum-type fruit... coming from a conifer tree Lleuque (Prumnopitys andina) and without the aftertaste of the pine needles! Somewhat similar in shape and taste are the fruits of Boldo (Peumus boldus). The Peumo (Cryptocaria alba) fruits are used for jams. Even the national flower of Chile - Copihue (Lapageria rosea) - a protected species, produces very sweet, big, and tasty fruits - imagine in your garden a beautiful climbing plant, hardy, able to withstand snow and freezing temperatures, which flowers with huge, 4-5 inch long red or pink flowers which then give you delightful greenish fruits! And if we are talking about climbing plants, there are many more which can be eaten - like the Lardizabala biternata. The roots and leaves of Vinagrillo, Oxalis subacualis, can also be eaten and have a pleasant acid taste somewhat similar to European sorrel.
There are also many European and North American edible plants which were introduced to Chile and adapted themselves very well to the mild climate of Central Chile and now grow naturally, displacing local native plants - for instance, the common chicory (Cichorium intybus), the roots of which are used to prepare a coffee-type drink, blackberry (Rubus fruticosus), which has enormous economic importance for the local peasant population - entire villages go out and collect it during its fruiting season (January-February) to sell it to the processing plants which industrially produce jams, dog rose (Rosa moschata), which is used for jams, as tea, and as a prime material for esssence oils.
These are merely a few examples and the list of all edible Chilean plants is indeed very long; shortly we will make available a list of these edible plants along with a much more detailed description of each. What is more important, many of these plants can be adapted to commercial cultivation conditions and have yields per square meter which make them very attractive for the exotic fruit market. For instance, Gaultheria pumila can easily yield 100 g of fruit per square meter - that is equivalent to about 1000 lb per acre-, and this without special soil requirements, expensive irrigation systems; it can be grown on almost any mountain slope, provided it is not too hot.
As was previously indicated, the Chilean plants are ideally suited for outdoor cultivation because of their adaptability to harsh climates. There are several key groups of ornamental plants.
First, the flowers or herbs:
Rhodophialas are very beautiful plants with a dozen species or so (plus the related Placeas), they are very hardy, can grown outside and be covered by snow during months, the flowers are big, showy, and attractive; the plant in itself is not very big, can be potted successfully, and is easy to grow. The only disadvantage is the fact that they would not flower for at least two years (generally it it takes three to four years). The most attractive Rhodophiala is probably the Rhodophiala splendens, followed by Rhodophiala rhodolirion. There is also the Rhodophiala montana y Rhodophiala andicola.
Alstroemerias is another important group with about 50 species. Chile has the largest number of species in the world. The techniques for planting most of the Alstroemerias are similar, they are not very difficult to grow, are generally very hardy (some species, the high mountain varieties, routinely are covered by snow for 3 to 6 months like the Alstroemeria umbellata, Alstroemeria pseudospatulata). They bloom faster than the Rhodophialas. There is also one related species, Bomarea salsilla, which is a climber; it grows easily, but the seeds have very short duration (6 months).
Orchides in Chile are also very interesting, but they are quite complicated to grow, maybe less so than the tropical varieties, but still it is not an easy undertaking. It is estimated that there are about 150 species, most of which are very similar and difficult to distinguish. All of them grow in soil, and for their successful propagation you need not only the seeds, but also the symbiotic fungi, both for germinating the seeds and for the roots to grow successfully. That means that together with the plant you would need the soil taken from around the roots of the orchides. In a word, this is a difficult task, but, if you are successful, you will have very hardy plants that will not require any care, which are ideal for outdoor growing, and which will reward you with beautiful flowers year after year.
Calceolarias are also quite common in Chile and there is a large variety of them: Calceolaria meyeniana, Calceolaria arachnoidea, Calceolaria filicaulis ssp. filicaulis, Calceolaria thyrsiflora, and many others. They are nice, grow fast, generally without problems. The seeds, being extremely small (like powder), do not have long duration and require special germination techniques.
Tropaeolaceae. These are generally climbers. Once again, they are easy to grow, hardy (many of them grow at altitudes of up to 3000 m, where the snow dominates the landscape for months), very beautiful when blooming and even without flowers (Tropaeolum polyphyllum has leaves which are somewhat reminiscent of palm groves). Other interesting Tropaeolaceae are: Tropaeolum ciliatum and Tropaeolum speciosum.
Azaras. These are small trees, usually no higher than 4 - 5 meters, resistant to snow, and very decorative - they bloom profusely in spring with yellow flowers and on some plants there are so many fruits that they rival ide the leaves. Probably the best of these is the Azara microphylla, which has miniature shiny leaves and the Azara serrata, the fruits of which are yellowish-orange and form a nice contrast to the rough grayish leaves. Azara lanceolata distinguished itself by the long, narrow leaves. There is also Azara integrifolia and Azara petiolaris.
A number of trees have commercial value due to their wood qualities (Austrocedrus chilensis, Laurelia sempervirens, Embothrium coccineum, Nothofagus alpina, Nothofagus glauca, Nothofagus pumilio, and many others), and many plants were used in the countryside as a replacement for industrial products (like Proustia pyrifolia which was used for tying-up of the hay bundles.