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Gardenlust: Parque Explorador Quilapilún in Colina, Chile

by Timber Press on September 25, 2018

in Design, Gardening

The newest botanical garden in Chile, Parque Explorador Quilapilún, is part of a 939-acre (380-hectare) conservation project, and was designed by Harvard-educated landscape architect Consuelo Bravo. Its three highlights are plant collections, hardscape design, and environmental remediation.

Consuelo Bravos • 11 acres (4.5 hectares) • 2014

The remediation is a project funded by AngloAmerican, a multinational mining company, to repair the land near one of its containment dams that was found to contain poisonous copper waste from its mines in the Andes. The funding also supported the park’s design, construction, and environmental and other educational programs.

The valley in which the park lies is part of the intermediate depression that separates the Andes from the Coastal Range. At an altitude of about 2,000 feet (610 meters) above sea level and with a Mediterranean climate, it gets blisteringly hot and dry in the summer. Without a hat and water, the visitor can suffer from heat-induced intermediate depression quite quickly. The entrance to the garden is marked with a demi-colonnade of Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis), a palm with the thickest trunk of the family and so named because their sap can be used to make a fermented drink. While the sap is intoxicating for humans, the tree is killed in the harvesting process, and it is consequently now relatively rare in the wild.

The garden’s concrete paths are wide, long, and angled—the term hardscape is particularly apt to describe them. Geometrically distinct beds are cut by their acute lines. A local rufous stone is used as mulch, the volcanic ferocity with which it was formed and indeed placed in the garden seems an appropriate accompaniment to the spiky sclerophyllous trees growing out of it.

Drought is dominant, of course, and the thorny forest contains tough trees. Acacia caven is a small, flat-topped tree with yellow flowers and large brown seedpods. The wood is used for fence posts by humans, while the flowers are an important food source for bees. Chilean mesquite (Prosopis chilensis) is a large, spiny tree common in the arid region. It is a staple food for cattle, as well as a source of firewood for the local population.

The farthest reaches of the garden contain the taller trees of the hard-leaf forest. Boldo (Peumus boldus) is the prevailing tree, its camphor-like aromatic flowers and leaves perfuming the area, particularly as the sun goes down. It is widely used in alternative medicine, where it is used for dyspepsia, and in cooking, where it is used in a way similar to bay leaves. No Chilean landscape would be complete without the injection of some striking cacti silhouettes, and here Echinopsis chiloensis, a proper tree cactus, belongs in the forest too, thanks to its radial stems that can reach up to 25 feet (8 meters) in height.

Lest the garden give visitors the impression that all in the surrounding mountains is hard and spiny, scrabbling to survive by projecting thorns at innumerable angles, the garden is also populated with sweeps of local grasses, soft green in spring and early summer, gold in late summer to winter. Aristida pallens, a fine-textured grass, is planted with the native Verbena bonariensis, widely planted as an annual in faraway temperate gardens. Amelichloa caudata is a grass that forms tussocks, while the golden spikelets of Cola de Zorro (Cortaderia rudiuscula), a form of pampas grass, tower loftily above the rest of the garden’s foliage as they float almost 10 feet (3 meters) above the parched ground.

The glory of the garden, indeed the glory of all Chile, is Puya chilensis. This bromeliad grows wild in the rocky slopes of the Andes, forming large rosettes of gray-green leaves edged with hook-shaped spines. When it flowers, it puts even the most zealous landscape architecture to shame by comparison. Spikes of bright chartreuse yellow flowers up to 6 feet high (1.8 meters) thrust out of the round base in spring and early summer, trumpet within trumpet, reaching for the sky.

The park is a gift for the people of Chile and for those adventurous enough to travel outside the tourist spots of Santiago—what a pity it would be to miss the puya for lack of inquiring what else might be nearby. This garden, with its magnificent native plants, tells us that the real wealth of Chile is its natural environment, and reminds us that the marvels of the world are out there, waiting patiently for us to pay attention to them for their inherent beauty.

 

Christopher Woods began his gardening life at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. He was director and chief designer of Chanticleer, and he has served as vice president for horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden; director of the Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada; executive director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden; and director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm.

 

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