Chilean mock holly depends on edible dormouse
There were few plants in flower when we trekked up through Nothofagus (southern beech) forests to see the Monkey Puzzle Trees in southern Chile. Our tally for the Huerquehue National Park near Pucon included one flowering Canelo or Winter's Bark (Drimys winteri) - yes one, plant - and a single flower on a 'gesneriad' called Sarmieta repens - yes one, flower.
There were two obvious exceptions to this flowerless landscape. One was Fuchsia magellanica, the fuchsia we all grew up with in our home gardens but here growing in its natural habitat shaded by southern beech. The other was Desfontainia spinosa.
Consistent with its charming genus name (after French botanist René Louiche Desfontaines) it's a pretty little thing, particularly in flower. If I tell you it's in the Columelliaceae, or sometimes its own family, the Desfontainiaceae, I'm sure you are hardly better informed. Columellia is another South American genus and both genera have only a couple of species. Perhaps its previous allegiance to the Loganiaceae helps?
Anyway, let's stick with the species I now know. The common name Chilean Holly tells you a bit more about what it looks like: it has leaves which are prickly on the edges. However these leaves emerge from the stem in pairs, rather than alternating from one side to the other as happens in true Holly (Ilex).
But the flower grabbed my attention in April this year and its these that grace this post, all tantalisingly just out of focus due to the low light levels... In addition to botanists, the flowers attract Green-backed Firecrowns, a local hummingbird. (I didn't see any hummingbirds here but was excited to see one visiting a Chilean Bell Flower back at our hotel.)
We didn't see any fruits but it seems the seed is only distributed via the faeces of an animal charmingly described by the World Heritage Encyclopedia as 'an edible dormouse-like marsupial'. The Dromiciops gliroides is commonly called Chumaihuén or in Spanish, Monito del Monte, which translates as the ' little monkey of the mountain'. Apparently it eats the berries of lots of local plants and by defecating them into new places, helps them get about.
In the fourth volume of Roger Spencer's Horticultural Flora of of South-eastern Australia he says this species is 'the source of a yellow dye and its leaves are used for a medicinal tea'. I'd be a little wary of the medicinal uses given the psychedelic language and warnings in apparently ethnobotanical posts such as this one from Botanical Guides . And the preponderance of the word 'shaman' in this and many other posts on the species also suggests this is a plant to avoid.
Roger describes it as 'occasionally grown'. We used to have a couple in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens but not anymore, which could be described as occasional. Apparently growth is slow in cultivation - taking up to 20 years to reach the grand height of 2.5 metres - but I did notice it was recommended warmly for mildly cool climates, like Scotland, as long as you it was grown against a wall.
Oh, and it doesn't like acidic soils but enjoys a bit of waterlogging. So they say.