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Discover the Trees and Shrubs of the Atacama Desert

The scarce rainfall of the Atacama Desert's semi-desert climate is not a problem for the endemic flora that have survived by adapting to the most arid place on the planet.
December 20, 2022

Solange Passicot

Cacti are clearly one of the species that have successfully adapted to this extreme climate. However, this desert is also home to extraordinary trees and shrubs. On your trip to Tierra Atacama, we invite you to discover them.

The Chañar: a Medicinal Tree

Although it seems impossible in the middle of this arid landscape, this tree grows abundant green foliage. With its sharp thorns that disappear before flowering, this desert survivor reaches between 3 and 10 meters in height. It produces a sweet, edible fruit, and its wood is used in carpentry, furniture making, and as charcoal and firewood.

From September to October, it displays beautiful, intensely yellow flowers, and from November to January it is covered with sweet-tasting fruits that look like legumes and are highly sought after by local wildlife and the communities that use them for culinary and medicinal purposes. 

Arrope de Chañar is made from this tree’s fruit. It is a sort of very sweet, dark and thick honey, which is used to relieve sore throats and coughs. The fruit can also be fermented to make Aloja de Chañar, an alcoholic beverage.

Do you dare give them a try?

Rica Rica: A Gastronomic Success

When it comes to shrubs, Rica Rica is one that is worth noting, as it only grows in this part of the world. Its aromatic, greenish-yellow leaves cover the entire plant that reaches up to one meter in height. In September, its beautiful, light-purple flowers adorn its foliage.

The high-plains peoples consider it miraculous, thanks to its multiple medicinal properties to treat different diseases and ailments, such as stomach, kidney and circulatory problems. Additionally, they claim that it stimulates breast-milk production.

Its intense fruity aroma, with some citrus touches, have made it an exceptional ingredient in gastronomy and the preparation of different types of cocktails. You can find it in chocolates, ice cream, desserts, chicken and pork dishes, salads and pisco sour.

Before your visit with us ends, you must taste the different ways we have prepared this unique plant that can only be found in northern Chile.

Pingo Pingo: A Hope for Cancer

Another important shrub is the Pingo Pingo. It grows up to 1.2 meters in height once mature. Its leaves and branches are used in different ways in folk medicine: to treat urinary tract infections, to cleanse the body, to cure colds and to soothe stomach pain. 

Additionally, research carried out by Chilean scientists found that Pingo Pingo very effectively treats and heals cancerous lesions. While this property is still being studied, it is believed that this small desert shrub can destroy cancer cells and, perhaps very soon, could be used as a powerful drug to combat this disease.

It’s a tiny giant that you should meet in person.

Chilean Algarrobo: A Gift from the Gods

Among the sand and salt flats, under the intense desert sun, grows an extraordinary tree with small yellow flowers, thorny branches and a delicious sweet and edible fruit, which is consumed by local fauna and peoples.

Growing up to 10 meters, the local indigenous peoples consider it an offering from the gods thanks to its highly nutritious properties and the great variety of uses for its fruits and seeds. Long ago it was used to make flour and alcoholic beverages to celebrate summer festivals and the feast of the Virgin Mary.

Its fruit is also recognized for its important medicinal properties: in addition to providing calcium for the bones, strengthening the nervous system and improving brain function, it also prevents anemia, hair loss, constipation and anxiety attacks, and decreases menopause symptoms.

Will you try the Algarrobo fruit?

White Algarrobo: Toasting the Full Moon

Also known as Tacu, the White Algarrobo reaches a height of up to 15 meters. In the spring months, it is covered with small greenish or yellowish-white flowers, and this gives way to the formation of a pod full of chestnut-colored seeds surrounded by a sweet, high-calorie pulp. Animals eat its fruit and local communities turn it into flour to make bread, tortillas and drinks, and even ferment it to make chicha.

It is said that women crush the pods, while men hollow out sticks, then burn them so they are stronger and can be used to drink from. The preparation is left fermenting overnight in ceramic jars, but, on the following night, ideally under a full moon, only the adult men are allowed to consume the drink.

Fruit infusions are also used to dissolve bladder stones, as a diuretic and to stop diarrhea.

Although the bark of this tree is used to dye vegetable fibers and make household items, its main use is as a fuel: formerly in locomotives, industrial boilers and mining, and currently for stoves and heaters.

Are you up for seeing how many of these species you can identify on your excursions in the Atacama Desert?



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