When Chile’s Desert Bursts with Color

If there is a single natural phenomenon that plant-lovers and beauty seekers spend a lifetime waiting for, it is the flowering desert. This event, which tends to happen infrequently, and only after rains uncharacteristic in the desert, is known to happen in three main places in the world: Australia, the United States, and the north of Chile.

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Surprisingly fertile deserts erupt into bloom when heavy rains awaken seeds, bulbs and rhizomes that have laid dormant for years, or even decades. I talked with Jaime Droguett, one of Chile’s flowering desert experts, who’s spent years in tourism, and ever since guiding some members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America in the early 2000s, has dedicated some of his touring time to assisting plant-seekers, including cactus lovers, who are hoping to see Chile’s impressive population (80% of cactus species in Chile are endemic). And on rare occasions—such as this year—when the desert blooms, Droguett also helps visitors seek out the hidden areas where some of the rarest flowering desert species may be found.

Chile’s last flowering desert event was in 2015, and though recent history indicates a cycle of about 5-15 years between blooms, unpredictability is the name of the game in the weather lately, and 2017 is looking to be another banner year. This winter has been uncharacteristically rainy in the north of Chile, and the prime flowering desert zone, which is roughly between the cities of Vallenar and Copiapó, received exactly the kind of rain that should leave parts of the Atacama a temporary rainbow, decked out in blooms starting in mid to late August of 2017.

The Norte Chico, as this swath of Chile is called, usually averages about 12 mm of rainfall a year. There are infrequent heavy rains, which can cause damage to local towns. A single heavy rainfall also does not lead to a flowering desert, because though the plants may come to life, they require a second rain for the buds that will eventually become flowers to form, Droguett explained.

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In order for the desert to bloom, there should be multiple rain events, totaling 40 mm or more, according to Droguett, and this year, there were three total rainfalls in the critical zone, adding up to that amount. Many experts think that’s setting the stage for this year to be the most stunning flowering desert in decades. In 2015, most of the visitors to the area were local, with Chileans driving up north in search of the flowers. Very few international visitors got to see the desert, and many didn’t realize it was blooming until it was too late for most of them to travel to Chile. This year, word seems to be getting out earlier, and for a mid-August holiday weekend, friends tell me hotels have sold out in the target area.

Perhaps the most iconic view of the flowering desert are the bright pink blooms that  line the Panamerican highway. These are the many thousands of blooming succulents we call the pata de guanaco or “guanaco’s foot” so named for the resemblance of the petals to the llama-like species’ soft foot pads. Droguett tells me that throughout the area, these are “like a carpet, like daisies or California poppies,” he says, referring to flowers that blur past our windows on long drives in central Chile.

But the pata de guanaco, or doquilla, as is it also called, is just one of many sights in the Atacama during the flowering desert, which, Droguett says, changes the landscape of what is normally shades of red, beige, brown and colors in between to many different hues you’d seldom associate with a desert.

After the pata de guanaco, there is the trumpet shaped lavender/light blue and white nolana, commonly known as a suspiro (literally, “sigh”), which you may also recognize from gardens back home. Evening primroses and related plants also bloom, as well as several kinds of Alstroemeria such as the coronilla de fraile (literally: friar’s crown), the yellow lilies called Alstroemeria kingii, and the mouth-shaped, furred Aristolochia bridgesii, commonly called oreja de zorro or “fox’s ear” in Chile. This last one is carnivorous, and Droguett tells me that you can tell if it’s in the process of digesting a meal by which way the trigger hairs on the plant are pointing. In, and it’s got something inside. Out, and it’s waiting for its next snack.

More sparsely found, but very highly prized is the añañuca (ahn ya NYU ka), which grows from a bulb. This plant is endemic to Chile, and is named for a folk tale about a woman who died of a broken heart, pining for her lost mate.  The añañuca comes in rich, Crayola-like colors such as a deep burnt red and a bright yellow, and usually appears alone, or occasionally in small clusters.

But the cream of the crop, the most sought-after flower, Droguett said is the garra de león, which translates to “lion’s claw,” another member of the Alstroemeria family that has a limited range. Its bulbs are a favorite food of the desert-dwelling guanaco, which makes the flower rarer still. Bomarea ovallei grow to about 10 cm and are usually reddish-orange in color, though there are some that are yellow. They flourish in hidden cracks on rocky soil, often on steep slopes, and are notoriously difficult to find, but Droguett was confident that he’d find some.

Though the likely places for pata de guanco is along the main highway that runs the length of Chile, for more flowers, you’ve got to scour the traverse valleys, which extend down towards the coast. Though you might think that riverbeds would be a good place to find flowers, these are not the blooms of the flowering desert, which are those that come after the required rains, Droguett said. Also, water in the desert means population centers, and where there are people in the desert in Chile, there are often goats. Goats, which happily munch their way through the ground cover, including plants that, if given the opportunity, might bloom.

As I write this, Droguett is on a desert scouting trip, seeking out the best spots for blooms, looking at the size of the buds to see when they’re likeliest to flower, which this year is likely to be in late August or early September, though by many estimations, the flowering desert could easily extend into October this year. Droguett is in contact with a network of people who work and travel in the area, even asking friends driving through to stop and take photos of any green they see. This information, together with reports from people working for CONAF, the national parks service, will influence where he searches for these hard-to-find species.

To see the Atacama Desert, the driest (non-polar) desert in the world trade in its moonscapes for fecund-garden like vistas is not just a visual feast for travelers, Droguett told me. The fecund state of the desert is high time for animal activity as well, including the  “vaquita del desierto” (literally, little desert cow, a beetle named for its black and white spots), and swarms of yellow moths the size of an adult’s thumb. Small beetles that are normally the size of a fingernail may triple in size as they gorge themselves on pollen, and bumble slowly in the desert under their bounty.

Birds may also appear, like finches, ibis, turtle doves, and the dark-faced ground tyrant, also known by it’s Chilean name “dormilona” (literally “sleepyhead”), but Droguett feels more confident about promising visitors flowers than predicting the presence of wildlife. All of the animals are in motion in the desert, and could or could not be anywhere. But after his reconnaissance trip through the area, he will know nearly for certain where the flowers should be.

The important thing to remember, Droguett said, when seeking out the flowers of the blooming desert is that “the earth is not like a canvas, it’s not homogenous, it’s different everywhere.” The interplay of the three essential elements of altitude, humidity and light are constantly in flux. Those seemingly tiny variations can make the difference between conditions that are perfect for a flower to bloom in one particular spot, while inches away, nothing grows.

It’s also essential to visit the sites responsibly, and Droguett was clear that that means driving only on established roads, and walking in the desert to get to the best examples of hidden flowers. That can be 20 minutes, a half an hour, or an hour’s walk, depending on the client, and the flower, Droguett says. The nine municipalities closest to the flowering desert seek to penalize irresponsible use of the area, picking plants or causing damage with vehicles, and the government is working on campaigns to educate travelers about how to promote conservation.

When the humidity dries up, and the flowers have lived out their life cycle, the desert will return to its customary tones of ochre, coffee, beige and cinnamon. Scrubby, flowerless bushes will predominate where before there was a riot of color. But before their final hurrah, the plants will leave behind seeds, bulbs and rhizomes, waiting for the conditions to be right for the next big bloom.

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