The natural phenomenon of the Chilean flowering desert takes place in coastal areas of the Atacama region. During this occurrence an average of 200 different species bloom, many of which are endemic, such as the “garra de león” (Bomarea ovallei) and 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.
Every few years a great amount of rain falls over some parts of the Atacama during the winter, usually as a consequence of the El Niño weather system. If the rainfall has exceeded 15mm and given the right temperature and humidity, the desert transforms into a colourful flower-filled meadow in the Spring.
The seeds, bulbs or rhizome of annuals and geophytes plants that have lain dormant begin to sprout and produce violet, white, blue or yellow flowers. 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) bloom.
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 stems and leaves to take advantage of 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 to much of the intense heat. While other have covered themselves in wax and bristles, thus preventing the loss of water and also providing protection from the wind.
Many people wonder how these seeds reached this remote and isolated desert 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 ingredient for the massive flowering of the hidden seeds.
Since then these seeds, that do not sprout all at once, 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.
Beyond the amazing spectacle that this phenomenon provides to visitors, this massive and rare flowering also attracts insects and animals.The flowers attract pollinating butterflies to the desert, as well as bees and moths, which aid to fertilisation the various species and also act as food for reptiles, birds and mammals.
Ants, birds and rodents are also attracted by the seeds on the ground and they themselves become part of the food chain as thet are preyed on by 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.
Life in the desert blooms in many different and unnoticed ways, making it a fascinating place to visit if you are lucky enough to be in Chile when it occurs. This year is expected to host the biggest flowering desert in 20 years - could be the perfect opportunity to plan a trip to the Atacama region.