Patagonia 3 – Magellan Pampa

Today we continue our Patagonian travelogue from last December. After stopping at Estancia de San Gregorio on December 19th (red dot on map), we drove a short distance further to the narrowest part of the Magellan Strait, the Primera Angostura (red X), about 27 miles (45 km) away.

This part of Patagonia is dominated by Magellan Pampa, a flat, arid landscape consisting of grasses, low scrub, and mat-forming perennials that subsist on about 15 inches of rain per year. After driving past several large, flat patches of yellow flowers, I got antsy and asked to stop so I could botanize.

Wind is one of the main evolutionary forces down here, selecting for plants that grow low to the ground. That is the one thing you should imagine for the rest of the posts from this series. Nonstop, unceasing wind, every day, from dawn to dusk, and all through the night.

Ah, here is the source of all that yellow I was seeing from the highway.

Nardophyllum bryoides. A brilliant rock garden plant if I ever saw one. There were fields and fields of it, and it was intensely fragrant. In fact, you could smell it as soon as you stepped out of the car, stenchly sweet, reminding me of a cross between carob chocolate, resin, and salty dung. Not exactly a good combo, but fortunately it wasn’t strong enough to be distracting.

A closer look at the attractive silvery leaves. There is a decomposing rabbit pellet, bottom center, for scale.

Ooh, a groundcover baccharis! Baccharis magellanica.

Adesmia lotoides, a mat-forming legume. Again, love the silvery leaves, which are an adaptation to the dry environment.

I was surprised to see a familiar plant that I’ve grown a few times in my own home rock garden, Azorella trifurcata.

The specific epithet, trifurcata, refers to the leaves, which are divided into three. These were just coming into bloom with small clusters of tiny yellow flowers. Hard to believe this is a relative of carrots. The white flower is a chickweed that somehow managed to force its way through.

I didn’t notice until I was going through my photos, but there was actually a second species of azorella in the area, Azorella monantha. It is distinguished from A. trifurcata by being more mound shaped and by having simple leaves that aren’t divided into three.

I like this group of A. monantha in various stages of bloom and decay. It’s a good reminder that even out in the wild, many plants develop dead patches. And, even dead plants can be attractive.

Nearby a cute little groundcover, Acaena sericea.

The specific epithet ‘sericea’ refers to the silken hairs on the leaves, which you can see outlining each leaflet. The red and green flowers are cool too.

There were miles and miles of a related species, Acaena magellanica, along the highway, most of it just coming into bloom.

A very attractive bluer form with contrasting reddish-purple flowers.

A closer look. As the flowers mature, each one becomes a prickly bur that sticks to fur, feathers, and clothes. I can only imagine how miserable that would be to walk through at that stage.

Strikingly handsome, though. It looks very similar to Acaena saccaticupula ‘Blue Haze’, a commercially available cultivar of a related species from New Zealand.

Geranium sessiliflorum (upper left, native), Hieracium pilosella (upper right, an invasive weed), Cerastium arvense (lower left, nonnative weed), and Armeria curvifolia (lower right, native).

A cute yellow-orange native violet, Viola maculata.

Moving on to the shrubs. There is a larger species of baccharis growing here, Baccharis patagonica, with a very nice overall form. Love the rosettes of leaves – like little cabbages on sticks.

And, perhaps one of the most important native plants to the region, the Magellan barberry, Berberis microphylla. Known locally known as calafate (cal-uh-FAH-tay). Its berries are used to infuse spirits with a unique flavor similar to cranberry. This, in turn, can be used to make a cocktail called the calafate sour, which is similar to a pisco sour, but with better flavor.

Bonus! As an aficionado of plant diseases, I was tickled to find barberry rust (Aecidium magellanicum) on several branches. This is a fungus that infects the leaves and stems, causing them to become distorted and red, before bursting out in orange sporulating pustules. Simply awesome. Don’t worry about the plant. It’s fine. Think of it as an additional decorative feature on an already valuable native shrub.

Adesmia boronioides, a larger cousin to A. lotoides from above. The leaves have a very pleasant resinous scent.

I’ve saved the best for last. The one plant that I was most excited to find that afternoon, but then sad that every single flower had been picked apart. Calceolaria uniflora or Darwin’s slipper. Turns out (now this sounds like a joke, but it’s not) that the flowers are pollinated by the least seedsnipe, a bird that eats the white lip on the floral pouch because it contains sugar. While pecking at the lip, the pollen boinks down on the bird’s head, which then gets transferred to the next flower that the bird feeds on. Amazingly cool, but I was bummed not to have seen an undamaged flower.

Time to move on to the Magellan Strait. On the way, we saw our first guanaco (WAN-a-coe) majestically surveying its domain in a field of Nardophyllum bryoides. Guanacos are llama relatives and their meat was found on almost every restaurant menu. It tastes a lot like beef, which several of us suspected had been substituted in to fool unsuspecting tourists. We didn’t see any cattle during our travels around the country though, so maybe it really was guanaco.

At first, we thought the guanaco were rare and were very excited to see each and every one, slowing down and gawking. But soon, we were seeing them everywhere. Just another guanaco…

And then we saw our first two rheas. This is the lesser rhea, the smaller of the two species occurring in South America (the greater rhea occurs further north and east). Sorry, no pictures of the babies, which were particularly cute running behind their parents.

Arriving at the village of Punta Delgada along the strait, I was immediately drawn to their radio station sign, Angostura FM 104.5. I’m a big fan of Angostura bitters, a delicious herbal tincture used in cocktails. However, angostura here has nothing to do with cocktails and simply refers to the narrowing of the waters…

…which you can see here, behind the monument celebrating the 500th anniversary of its discovery by Magellan in 1520.

There is an active lighthouse with a sign pointing the way to various major cities around the world.

And, regular ferry service heading over to Tierra del Fuego, about 2 miles over on the other side of the strait.

We stopped at the village restaurant, but their lunch options were not appealing. L, however, wanted to make sure to show you this. A potted Schefflera arboricola with topsoil dug from the ground, not potting soil. So, it’s not just Mexico that uses topsoil for houseplants (like in the Mexican nursery series beginning here).

We decided to skip lunch and head directly back to Punta Arenas. There are a lot of sheep being raised in this region (right).

Arriving back in Punta Arenas. It was cold and windy.

Some of those are real windows and doors, some are not.

Exploring along the beach before dinner. This dock was everything.

Those are little bits of charcoal in between the ridges of sand.

One of the large metal sculptures commemorating the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s discovery, entitled ‘Circunnavegacion’.

Time for dinner! One last look at the ships out in the bay before heading into town. We surprised by a tiger on the way, lurking in a patch of docks (Rumex). Luckily, we escaped with our lives

References

  • iNaturalist. Accessed 18 June 2024.
  • Patagonia wildflowers. Accessed 18 June 2024.
  • Domínguez Díaz, E. 2012. Flora Nativa Torres Del Paine. Ocho Libros. Santiago, Chile. ISBN 978-956-335-103-3. Available free online (here). In Spanish, but it is still a wonderful book.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Kris P

    That was a fun and very diverse post! I don’t know why but I had an image of Patagonia as a a lusher, greener landscape, more like parts of Alaska, at least during the summer months. I had to laugh at your reaction to barberry rust but I can understand its appeal. I love seeing the graceful guanacos and rheas. I was also delighted to see the cat sitting on the windowsill of the yellow building in Punta Arenas – at least until I processed your comment about some windows being real and others not. The man standing at his door with a dog had me looking more critically at the cat ;)

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Don’t worry, it will get lusher. Though, none of the places we visited were as lush as Alaska. RE my reaction to the barberry rust, I am finding as I get more comfortable blogging, I get a little more comfortable letting just a few of my other interests out. Plant diseases are one of them.

  2. Wow, nifty photos and information! It’s beautiful in its own unique way. This is an area of the world I may never visit, so thanks for sharing the highlights!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It was an interesting place. Definitely not what I was expecting, but then again, I don’t usually spend much time looking ahead to see what our vacation spots will be like. We will plan a few specific places to at each destination to visit and the rest is happy circumstance. That has led to a lot of happy surprises.

  3. Tracy

    Whoa, what a great trip! It is different than I expected, thank you for sharing. I love the barberry rust. I also thought the cat was real until reading your comment.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Much different than I expected too, Tracy. Don’t worry though. We will get to see at least one place that will be more characteristic of what people imagine when they think of Patagonia.

  4. danger garden

    “Pustules” is already one of my least favorite words, then you add “sporulating” to the mix and ugh. My tummy doesn’t feel so good. Of course I had to Google Calceolaria uniflora and it all makes sense now, the white lip and the boinking. Who knew? Well, you obviously.

    The dock was everything, but solid.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Whoa! I guess I should have posted a trigger warning with this post then! Insert appropriate laughing emoji here. I’ll share one of mine so that we can be somewhat even. Horrific. ‘Horrific’ is a terrible word that makes me cringe because it has completely replaced the perfectly good word ‘horrible’. I was hoping people would google Calceolaria uniflora. That dock was just so beautiful to me. Probably one of my favorite pictures of that day.

  5. chavli

    There is something magical in that dry, arid plato. It is probably unchanged in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. I can imagine First Peoples calling this unchanged landscape home.

    Your description of Nardophyllum bryoides’ fragrance as “stenchly sweet… a cross between carob chocolate, resin, and salty dung” cracked me up. (Especially your knowledge salty dung :-D)

    Behind the radio station of Punta Delgada (Angostura FM 104.5) there are multiple structures in identical shape and color. Is that where village people live? Does the village sustain itself mostly on tourism?

    Chavli

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Hi Chavli,

      I think having spent some time in my youth cleaning out sheep stalls, chicken coops, and collecting horse and rabbit dung for various classes that I have taught has given me an extraordinary capacity to describe the many nuances of the scent of dung. Not to mention owning cats, dogs, and other animals over the years.

      Yes to your question about Punta Delgada. That is a small village mainly serving the locals and tourists when they occasionally have to wait a long time to cross the Magellan Strait on the ferry. There’s a snorkel shop, for example, back there and a small convenience store inside the restaurant.

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