The story of Chile through flora: five flowers to know

The legends and natural history of the country’s varied flora offer a sweet-smelling look at traditional culture in this Andean nation.

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In a land as long and varied as Chile, you’re bound to find unique flora and fauna on your travels, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit during the Austral spring (September to December). From the cautionary popular advice about the Litre to the indigenous legends about the Copihue, you may be surprised by what you learn about Chile through its flowers.

Here, a quick sketch of Chilean flowers, organized roughly from north to south:

Añañuca (Hippeastrum igneum)

The añañuca flower is a red wildflower that grows between Copiapó and the Quilimarí valley in northern Chile. This normally arid stretch of desert comes alive with flowers in certain years, in the natural phenomenon known as the desierto florido, or flowering desert.

Legend says that during Spanish rule, there was a beautiful young woman named Añañuca who lived near the Limarí River. She fell in love with a gold miner, who disappeared into the desert one day . Añañuca died of grief. Her family wept for her and buried her on a rainy day. When the sun came out and shone on her grave, the site was filled with beautiful red flowers, named for Añañuca in honor of her pain.

Copihue (Lapageria rosea

Copihue flowers can be found from the central port city of Valparaíso to the southern city of Osorno, usually hanging from a tree limb in shady forests and reaching heights of up to 32 feet (10 m). The native flower is the national flower of Chile, declared an official symbol of the country in 1977. The slender, red inverted blossoms appear in summer (around December) and last until mid-autumn (March), and you’re unlikely to see them outside their native habitat, as they are notoriously difficult to cultivate in gardens.

Two of the largest indigenous groups in Chile, the Mapuche and the Pehuenche, share a legend of the Copihue which tells of mutual distrust. A Mapuche princess by the name of Hues and a Pehuenche prince by the name of Copih fell in love, despite a war between their respective tribes. They were forbidden to see each other, but they ignored their parents and met by the side of a lake. The young lovers’ fathers went in search of them, and Hues’ father speared Copih in the heart, prompting Copih’s father to kill Hues as well. The next year, both tribes gathered at the lake to mourn the fate of Hues and Copih, and when they awoke in the morning, they discovered a beautiful new flower with blood-red petals.

Dedal de oro (Eschscholzia californica)

California natives will recognize the cheery orange flowers that dot Chile’s roadways and train tracks throughout Chile as the California poppy. A consummate example of the climatic similarities and cultural ties between Chile and California, the poppy was first brought to Chile hundreds of years ago, either intentionally or accidentally mixed with seeds for alfalfa.

Urban legend says that the poppies were planted along Chile’s train tracks during the railway boom that characterized the country’s early development, as the poppies’ long roots and drought-resistant characters were perfect for stabilizing the train tracks. Another popular urban legend says that Ismael Valdés Alfonso, an important character in the 20th century who founded the popular vegetarian restaurant “El Naturista” and was known as “Lechuga Valdés” – played a sort of Johhny-Appleseed-role with the California poppy, throwing handfuls of seeds from the window of his train car.

Litre (Lithraea caustica)

A simple “buenos días” should do the trick, but you’d better be sure to always say hello to the Litre, a native tree that ranges through most of central Chile from Coquimbo to Arauco. The tiny white flowers look innocent enough, but the tree produces a resin similar to the one found in poison ivy, which can produce severe allergic reactions on the skin. Local lore says that offering a friendly salutation to the plant will keep an allergic reaction at bay, so be sure you recognize it when you see it: look for a small tree with white-red fruits that keeps its leaves year-round and grows in arid soils.

The name Litre is a mapudungún word of the Mapuche, who used the small fragile berries to create a fermented beverage known as muchior müchü.

Ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia)

The native Ulmo tree is found in thick stands of oak forest in southern Chile, between the regions of Los Ríos and Los Lagos. The fragrant white flowers bloom in February and March, and are responsible for the prized ulmo honey (miel de ulmo) that Chileans say is the best-tasting honey to be found.