Patagonia, from ice to flowers
The Holocene is the last and current geological period. It corresponds to the end of the last glacial period approximately 12,000 years ago, when the glaciers slowly retreated and caused the sea level to rise. At the same time, the rocky bed was exposed on the surface of Patagonia, which had previously been covered by great ice masses. This began the process of colonization by lichens and mosses, the ancestors of the southern flora, which in turn led to the arrival of animals and later migrations of humans to the southern zone.
The majority of the flora that can be observed in the Magallanes Region is generally found between the Baker River and Cape Horn; in other words, between the 47th and 56th parallels south. While rainfall over this extensive territory ranges between 350 mm and 8,000 mm per year depending on the zone, the average annual precipitation in the area of the Beagle Channel is 1,000 mm. In this same region, vegetation generally grows up to altitudes of between 400 and 600 meters.
TREES AND SHRUBS
Trees in the Nothofagus genus are the most representative and common of the Magellan’s Region, including the Magellan’s beech (Nothofagus betuloides), the Lenga beech (Nothofagus pumilio) and the Antarctic beech (Nothofagus Antarctica). The Magellan’s beech is evergreen. To distinguish these species from each other, the leaves must be observed:
- the Magellan’s beech leaves are hard to the touch, dark green and have irregular, saw-toothed edges;
- the Lenga beech has two “teeth” between each vein;
- the Antarctic beech has several “teeth” between each vein.
The Winter’s bark (Drimys winteri) is a tree with persistent, large, lanceolate leaves. It grows in humid places and its bark contains vitamin C. It has white flowers. Despite its common name in Spanish (canelo, which is similar to the word for cinnamon) this tree is not related to cinnamon.
The Chilean fire bush (Embothrium coccineum) stands out for its splendid red flowers in the spring. It also flowers less intensely in the fall.
The fashine (Chiliotrichium diffusum) is a tree that can reach up to 1.5 m in height and is found everywhere. In summer, it is covered with tiny white flowers similar to small daisies, and can be confused with a sheep from afar.
The prickly heath (Gaultheria mucronata) forms low bushes (from 20 to 50 cm in height). Its flowers are the shape of miniscule bells, and its fruits have the appearance of tiny white and pink apples. They are edible and have a peculiar, spongy texture inside, making them resistant to freezing during the winter.
The native wild currant (Ribes magellanicum) produces a cluster of little yellow and red flowers that later turn into exquisite berries.
The Magellan barberry (Berberis microphylla) is a thorny and very abundant shrub. It has a lovely blooming period, with infinite little orangey-yellow flowers. The best time for this bush, however, is at the end of the summer, when its berries ripen and offer the gourmet their exquisite, sweet flavor. They can be turned into jam, sauces or tarts. A very popular legend has it that “he who eats the Magellan barberry will return to this land”.
The holly-leafed barberry (Berberis illicifolia) is in the same family as the Magellan barberry. Its sharp leaves are wider than those of the latter, but its flowers are relatively similar. Its fruits are bitter.
FLOWERS AND PLANTS
The waterfall plant (Ourisia ruelloides) is characterized by its small, red, bell-shaped flowers that seek out moisture, especially near waterfalls.
The coiron (Festuca gracillina) is Patagonia’s most common native grass and can grow up to 50 cm in height. It is a delicacy for sheep, even during the winter.
The Magellan orchid (Chloraea magellanica) is probably one of the only four orchids that exist in Tierra del Fuego and is the most difficult to find. Its white flowers set off by green stripes are extremely beautiful.
The cojines are various species of mosses that grow on groups of rocks and whose shape and texture resemble a cushion. They make up the largest component of the peat bogs or peat.
The basket rush (Marsippospermum grandiflorum) grows in saturated soils. For thousands of years, the native peoples of the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego channels used this plant to weave baskets.
The sundew (Drosera uniflora) is the region’s only carnivorous flower. It measures between 3 mm and 5 mm and lives in moist environments such as peat bogs.
The stick-tight (Acaena magellanica) grows everywhere. The flower of this plant, which grows to some 20 cm in height, sticks to shoes and pants.
The false mistletoe (Misodendrum punctulatum) is a parasite that often grows on Nothofagus species, forming large and highly visible balls.
The woods lady’s slipper (Calceolaria biflora) is a beautiful and tiny flower that is not very easy to find in Tierra del Fuego, but that can be admired in Torres del Paine National Park, for example.
The devil’s strawberry (Gunnera magellanica) grows in moist, shady places. Its small red fruit has a bitter taste.
The Magellan strawberry (Rubus geoides) grows at ground level or else is hidden underneath the plant’s leaves. At the end of the summer it is red, and is a true delicacy when fully ripe.
The fungi are a kingdom of unicellular or pluricellular life forms that do not form tissues and whose cells group together to form a highly branched body of filaments.
The Darwin’s fungus (also known as pan de indio or llao-llao): Three species are given the same common name. They parasitize Nothofagus species, causing tumors known as “knots”. Darwin’s fungus is edible but has no flavor.
The lichens are fungi that live symbiotically with algae.
Lichens as bioindicators: Although lichens are tolerant to a wide range of ecological conditions, they are also very sensitive to air pollution. The delicate nutritional balance that exists between the microalgae and the fungus is easily altered by gaseous airborne contaminants, including SO2 and nitrogen oxides, among others. For this reason, they have been successfully used as environmental bioindicators in urban and suburban areas. Thanks to their slow growth, they have also been used to date the retreat of glaciers (lichenometry) as well as megalithic monuments such as the Moai in Easter Island.
(“It is a marvelous chapter of life, the fight that these little organisms wage against the formidable power of the high mountains, allowing us to find their colorful crusts even on the highest rocks. With bright colors, they paint the dead rock and rise up as the first and last sentries of life, awakening our passionate interest.”)