Chile 2011: The white forest



Here and there, the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada are covered in pehuén trees (Araucaria araucana), with almost snow-white trunks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




From the town of Curacautin, my companion Lars Skipper and I drive east towards Parque Nacional Conguillio.

Near the park, we make a stop to stroll across an old lava stream, which stems from a volcanic eruption in 1957. Far away, the pointed, snow-clad peak of the Llaima Volcano (3125 m) seems to pierce the sky. The only vegetation among the lava rocks are a species of wintergreen, Gaultheria pumila, and numerous lichens.

In agricultural areas around the lava stream, we encounter several well-known plant species, including yarrow (Achillea millefolium), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), common St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). Presumably, their seeds were accidentally brought to this area by European settlers.

Bird life, however, is typically Chilean. We observe black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopis), southern lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), long-tailed meadowlark (Leistes loyca, previously Sturnella loyca), Chimango caracara (Milvago chimango), and others.

We find a fine camping spot in an open forest, close to a gravel pit. At dusk, the owner appears – a friendly and talkative man, who is not at all opposed to our intention of camping in his forest. He informs us that it has been raining more or less continuously for the last week, and that today is the first fine summer’s day. The evening is pleasantly warm – at 9:30 p.m., our thermometer shows 26oC.



Barren lava rocks in front of the Llaima Volcano. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Among the lava rocks, we found this species of wintergreen, Gaultheria pumila, whose fruits may be white, purple, or red. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Black-faced ibises, feeding in a field. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




A beautiful lake
Laguna Captrén is a little jewel of a lake, surrounded by swampy meadows with a profusion of flowers, including an abundance of a gorgeous orange species of avens, Geum magellanicum, and a species of groundsel (Senecio).

On the lake surface, several bird species are swimming about, including flying steamer duck (Tachyeres patachonicus), Chilean pintail (Anas georgica ssp. spinicauda), Andean duck (Oxyura ferruginea), and white-winged coot (Fulica leucoptera). On the shore, a pair of ashy-headed goose (Chloephaga poliocephala) are walking about with their goslings.

Rocks around the lake are home to various lizard species, the commonest of which is the painted tree lizard (Liolaemus pictus).



The Llaima Volcano is reflected in Laguna Captrén. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This gorgeous species of avens, Geum magellanicum, was common in meadows around the lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A pair of ashy-headed goose with goslings, Laguna Captrén. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The painted tree lizard is very common in Parque Nacional Conguillio. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Expensive campsite
The only designated camping ground in the park is situated near the shores of a huge lake, Lago Conguillio. The camping fee is outrageous – 15,000 Chilean Pesos per night (c. 22 US$).

Around our camping spot, thousands of golden and yellow Inca lilies (Alstroemeria aurea) are flowering, and several white-throated treerunners (Pygarrhichas albogularis) are feeding on the tree trunks, nuthatch-like.

In the park, we encounter many other blooming plants, including Rhodophiala advena, a gorgeous member of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), a yellow-flowered orchid, Gavilea lutea, and the red-flowered Chilean firebush (Embothrium coccineum), a member of the family Proteaceae. The name of this family is based on the genus Protea, applied in 1767 by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in reference to Proteus, a Greek deity who was able to change between many forms – an appropriate choice, as the family is known for its astonishing variety and diversity of flowers and leaves.



Around our campsite, thousands of golden and yellow Inca lilies were in full bloom. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



White-throated treerunners, feeding on a tree trunk, nuthatch-like. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Three beautiful plants of the park, Rhodophiala advena (top), Gavilea lutea (centre), and Chilean firebush. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Many species of slipper flowers (Calceolaria) are found in Chile. This one was encountered near the shores of Lago Conguillio. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Monkey-puzzle trees – without monkeys
Parque Nacional Conguillio is home to what is probably the most beautiful growth of the national tree of Chile, pehuén (Araucaria araucana), in English called monkey-puzzle tree – indeed a peculiar name, as no monkeys live in this part of South America.

In 1791-1795, Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) participated as surgeon and botanist in an expedition around the world on board HMS Discovery, under leadership of Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798).

In Chile, while dining with the Viceroy, Menzies was served Araucaria seeds as a dessert. He popped some seeds into his pocket and was able to make them sprout on board the ship. He returned to England with five healthy plants – the first of its kind in Britain. (Source:

The English name originates from around 1850. In an English park, which had specimens of this tree, a visitor jokingly remarked that it would “puzzle a monkey to climb that tree” – referring to its stiff, spiny leaves. The name monkey-puzzle tree stuck to this day.

The genus Araucaria belongs to an ancient group of conifers, which evolved in an era, before the ancient continent Gondwanaland began to separate. In those days, the distribution of Araucaria was limited to what is presently the southern hemisphere, and today members of the genus are found in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, and New Caledonia.

The leaves of pehuén are triangular, 3-4 cm long and up to 3 cm broad at the base, very tough and with a sharp point. They can remain on the tree for as long as 15 years, and in time they cover the entire surface of younger branches, only the trunk and old branches being bare.

Araucaria species are usually dioecious, with male and female cones on separate trees. The female cones are wind-pollinated, in pehuén maturing in about 18 months. The mature cones are very large, 12-20 cm diameter, holding about 200 seeds, each 3-4 cm long. The edible, nut-like seeds are extensively harvested in Chile.

The specific name araucana was derived from the name of a local people, the Araucanians, who ate the seeds. A sub-group of this people are the Pehuenches. In the local language, pehuén is the name of the monkey-puzzle tree, whereas che means ’people’. (Source:



Grand forests of pehuén are ubiquitous in Parque Nacional Conguillio and a few other places in the Andes. Elsewhere, the species is endangered. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Monkey-puzzle tree is indeed a puzzling name, as there are no monkeys in this part of South America. The name originated in England. The lower picture shows unripe cones. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Roaming the forest
The national park is home to a wonderful forest, which contains a large number of giant and ancient trees. The largest pehuén in the park, called Araucaria Madre (‘Mother of the monkey-puzzle trees’), is about 1,800 years old and about 50 m tall, with a trunk diameter of c. 210 cm. Another very large tree species is the coigüe (Nothofagus dombeyi), one among ten species of southern beeches in Chile.

Birdlife in this forest is not particularly rich. We observe two species of woodpecker, the very large Magellanic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus) and Chilean flicker (Colaptes pitius), common miner (Geositta cunicularia), rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), scale-throated earthcreeper (Upucerthia dumetaria), and small flocks of slender-billed parakeet (Enicognathus leptorhynchus).



This giant pehuén has been dubbed Araucaria Madre (‘Mother of the monkey-puzzle trees’). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Forest of coigüe, one of ten species of southern beeches in Chile. The forest floor is covered by a dense tangle of dwarf bamboo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Lars, standing next to an old coigüe, which has been attacked by fungi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Misodendrum linearifolium is a strange parasite, growing on trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Another parasite on trees is Cyttaria espinosae, a sac fungus, here growing on a coigüe. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Male Magellanic woodpecker. The female has black head, the red colour restricted to the base of the bill. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



One of the very few smaller birds observed in the forest was this scaly-throated earthcreeper. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Snow caves and flower beds
We walk towards the snow-clad Sierra Nevada Range, following a ridge through a forest with numerous old coigüe, later also a few pehuén. There is a dense cloud cover, but only a few drops of rain fall, and in the afternoon the sun appears. The slope east of the ridge is covered in pehuén trees, their almost snow-white trunks standing out against the dark mountain side. Many of the trees are draped in old man’s beard lichens.

Vegetation along the upper part of the ridge consists of low shrubs of a different species of southern beech, Nothofagus alpina. Ultimately, these shrubs disappear, and we encounter the first snow.

Along a stream of meltwater, we encounter a group of Ourisia ruellioides, whose bright red flowers add a splash of colour to the drab landscape. This beautiful plant, previously known as O. poeppigii, is restricted to central and southern Chile and southern Argentina. Presumably, the specific name refers to the likeness of this species to members of the genus Ruellia, of the family Acanthaceae. This genus was named for French herbalist and physician Jean Ruel (1474-1537), also known as Jean Ruelle, or in Latin Ioannes Ruellius, who is best known for his publication of De Natura Stirpium (1536), a treatise on botany. The obsolete specific name was given in honour of German botanist, zoologist, and explorer Eduard Friedrich Poeppig (1798-1868), who spent several years exploring Chile, Peru, and Brazil. The results were publish in two volumes, titled Reise in Chile, Peru und auf dem Amazonenstrome, während der Jahre 1827-1832.

In a grassy area, we observe many other flowers, including fleabane (Erigeron), chickweed (Cerastium), a compact species of violet, Viola cotyledon, and the gorgeous Rhodolirium andicola, another member of the amaryllis family. At this altitude, we observe very few birds, only a flock of yellow-bridled finches (Melanodera xanthogramma), feeding in the grass.

Here and there, the melting snow has created ice caves, in which the walls and ’loft’ form a picturesque frame around nearby peaks in the Sierra Nevada.



Stunted pehuéns with a dense undergrowth of a species of southern beech, Nothofagus alpina. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ourisia ruellioides, growing near a stream. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Rhodolirium andicola, a gorgeous plant of the amaryllis family. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A compact species of violet, Viola cotyledon – an adaptation to the harsh climate of the Upper Sierra Nevada. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



View from inside an ice cave. The tall trees are pehuén. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




In the barren lava fields
The following day, we hike across the lava fields beneath the Llaima Volcano – a tremendous contrast to the landscape we experienced the previous day. The black lava gravel is almost completely barren. Only a few hardy plants have managed to take root here and there, a composite, possibly a Senecio, and an umbellifer, Pozoa coriacea, which is restricted to central Chile and western Argentina.

We fail to observe any animals.



Barren lava fields beneath the Llaima Volcano. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Two of the few hardy plants that had managed to take root in the dark gravel, a composite, possibly a Senecio (top), and an umbellifer, Pozoa coriacea. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update September 2023)