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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Plantas de Patagonia

By Jim Bishop, for Let's Talk Plants! January 2024.

Me at EcoCamp with Torres de Paine in the background.

In December, Scott Borden, eight friends and I visited Patagonia on a Natural Habitat Adventures tour. We visited a bird sanctuary, watched a glacier calving into Lago Argentina, stayed in EcoCamp with views of Torres de Paine, saw two pumas, lots of guanacos, rheas, penguins, condors, whales and other birds plus took a boat tour through the Straits of Magellan to visit a glacier and the southern tip of continental South America. Of course, I found plenty of plants and flowers along the way too.

The video below Plants of Patagonia, shows plants and flowers from our trip along with names of the plants.

Here is more information about some of the best and most interesting plants that we encountered.

Patagonian Pea, Lathyrus nervosus. We saw it scattered about in most places in Patagonia, from the lakesides to open grasslands. It looks similar to our California native Chaparral pea only it's non-vining, bushier, and has purple/lavender bicolor flowers instead of pink.

Calafate, Berberis microphylla, was also just about everywhere. It is a shrub to small tree covered with spines. Some call it Patagonian blueberry, but it is a different family, Berberidaceae. Like many berberis, it has yellow flowers in the spring - which we didn't see - that are followed by green fruits that eventually turn red then very dark blue. Jams and syrups made from the berries were in almost every shop in Patagonia. It also gave its name to the town of El Calafate, Argentina, which is where we started our tour of Patagonia. Legend says that anyone who eats a fresh calafate berry will be certain to return to Patagonia. We shall see since we did eat some off the bushes.

This unusual plant is a large-leafed rust fungi, Aecidium magellanicum, commonly known as the calafate rust. It only grows on the branches of the calafate bush, its host plant.

This very unusual fungi grows on plants in the Nothofagaceae family, Southern beeches. It forms a gall-like structure on the branches of the tree from which the pale orange golf-ball sized fruiting bodies emerge. It is edible, hence one of its common name Indian bread.

But it is also known as Darwin's Bread, Cyttaria darwinii. It is named after Darwin who encountered the fungi on the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. Specimens were taken while anchored at Tierra del Fuego. The original sample today is in the herbarium at Kew Gardens in London.

Orchids in bloom in the wild are always a treat to find on trips. We encountered 3 terrestrial (ground growing) orchids. From left to right they are:

  • Yellow orchid, Gavilea lutea

  • Dog orchid, Codonorchis lessonii

  • Porcelain Orchid, Chloraea magellanica

I knew about and was looking for Guanaco Bush, Anarthrophyllum desideratum. It is in the pea family and there are many different species in Chile and Argentina. It grows in a tight mound with bright red and orange flowers. It is said to be heavily grazed by guanacos, hence its common name and perhaps the reason for its tight shape. Many plants in Patagonia form dense mats and/or mounds. It might also be a way to protect the plants from high winds and heavy wet snow.

Patagonia Lady's Slipper, Calceolaria uniflora, was a real attention grabber. It seemed to like to grow alongside hiking trails in the disturbed soil above the trails.

Related to the plant in the previous photo is Patagonia Lady's Slipper, a flower that we frequently saw, Calceolaria uniflora.

Saving the best for last

But the real showstopper plant of the trip was Patagonia firebush, Embothrium coccineum, in Argentina. However, it is called the Chilean firebush on the Chilean side of Patagonia. It seems to show up in full bloom in the foreground whenever you are taking a photo of the beautiful scenery. We saw it near glaciers, in the foreground of lakes, alongside streams, around where we stayed, and covered with lichen on forest walks.

It is grown in cultivation in cool summer gardens in Europe and the Pacific Northwest. And somewhat surprisingly it is in the family Proteaceae. Like other members of the family it produces dense root masses of proteoid roots that provide access to normally inaccessible forms of various nutrients, especially phosphorus. The cluster roots exude acidic substances which are able to convert the otherwise inaccessible forms of nutrients into forms that are biologically useful.

More Videos from our trip:


Jim Bishop is currently the SDHS board member in charge of publicity and he is also a past president and the 2019 Horticulturist of the Year.


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