Flowering desert: How does this nature phenomenon happen?

There are only a few places in the world where the natural phenomenon of the flowering desert occurs: Australia, United States, Peru and Chile are some of them.

Cristaria glaucophylla - Malvilla
Cristaria glaucophylla - Malvilla | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar - Imagen de Chile

There are only a few places in the world where the natural phenomenon of the flowering desert occurs: Australia, United States, Peru and Chile are some of them. However, it’s in Chile where this nature show draws the most attention; this is due to its purple, yellow and white flower beds that cover the surface of the driest place on earth: the Atacama desert.

Alstroemeria Magenta

Alstroemeria Magenta | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

During the Chilean flowering desert, which mainly occurs in the coastal area of the Atacama region, an average of 200 different species bloom, many of those are considered endemic, such as the “garra de león” (Bomarea ovallei) or the delicate red Añañuca (Myostemma phycelloides). But this spectacle is not something you see everyday. In order for this massive blooming to happen, certain conditions are necessary, such as the right temperature and humidity that allow the seeds to sprout.

The magic behind the flowering desert

Every couple of years, a great amount of rain falls over the driest desert in the world during winter, usually as a consequence of the El Niño phenomenon. When the rainfall reaches a minimum of 15mm of water, during the right days and with the ideal temperatures and humidity levels, the desert transforms into a colourful and lively flower field during Spring season.

Bomarea ovallei - Garra de León

Bomarea ovallei – Garra de León | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

The seeds, bulbs or rhizome of annuals and geophytes plants that once belonged underground and were dormant begin to sprout and to give way for violet, white, blue or yellow flowers, with species as unique as the “huille” (Leucocoryne vittata), the “azulillo” (Pasithea caerulea), the “orejas de zorro” (Aristolochia chilensis) and the “pata de guanaco” (Cistanthe grandiflora).

Zephyra elegans D. Don - Celestina, Punar

Zephyra elegans D. Don – Celestina, Punar | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

But these desert flowers are not only formed by seeds or organisms that are able to survive many years underground, waiting for the right conditions to germinate, they also have had to adapt themselves to survive under extreme conditions. Some of them have the ability to collect water on their tissues and specially on their leaves, and to capture the humidity produced by the coastal fog (camanchaca). Other species have acquired lighter colours, such as white or grey, in order to better reflect the light and in doing so prevent themselves from absorbing the heat; while other have covered themselves in wax and bristles, thus preventing the loss of water and also allowing them to protect themselves from the wind.

Encelia Canescens - Corona de Frayle

Encelia Canescens – Corona de Frayle | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Many people wonder how these seeds reached the driest desert on the planet, and although there is no official explanation, it is believed that the flowering desert is a phenomenon that has been occurring for thousands of years now in the northern part of Chile. More than 5.000 years to be precise; there is evidence of the El Niño phenomenon since 1525, a fundamental aspect for the massive flourishing of the hidden seeds.

Zephyra elegans D. Don - Celestina, Punar

Zephyra elegans D. Don – Celestina, Punar | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Since then, these seeds, that do not sprout all at once –not even after heavy rain events– have given way to striking flowers that in turn generate hundreds and thousands of seeds that fall next to the main flower and continue to store themselves in the soil.

Providing life to the desert

Beyond the amazing spectacle that this phenomenon provides to visitors, this massive and rare flowering also attracts several types of insects and animals.The flowers attract pollinating butterflies to the desert, who gather themselves in inflorescences, as well as bees and moths, which aid to fertilize the various species and also act as food for reptiles, birds and mammals.

Cristaria glaucophylla - Malvilla

Cristaria glaucophylla – Malvilla | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Ants, birds and rodents are also attracted by the seeds on the ground, which will later turn into food for carnivorous animals such as the fox. Even the guanaco, a protected species within the area, is able to find a larger stock of food and thus preserving the species.

Cristaria glaucophylla - Malvilla

Cristaria glaucophylla – Malvilla | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Life in the desert blooms in many different and unnoticed ways, making it worth taking the time to visit northern Chile during this amazing phenomenon. This 2017, which is expected to host the biggest flowering desert in 20 years , could be the perfect opportunity to plan a trip to the Atacama region.

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Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Cactus de la familia de las Copiapoa

Cactus de la familia de las Copiapoa | Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

Amelia Ortúzar

Foto: Amelia Ortúzar – Imagen de Chile

A joint work with Ladera Sur

This post is also available in Spanish