Puya Vida

From Peru to Chile. From the high mountains to the low desert.

I began the second half of my South American journey at the garden of Ximena Nazal. She is a garden designer, nurserywoman and lover of Chilean flora.Her garden of  four hectares is an eclectic collection of plants. Her design is both delicate and chaotically romantic. It is wonderful.

There is not a camera big enough to capture the  dense beauty of her garden.



One of her many passions  is the genus Puya. While at her garden,she introduced me to one that was in flower. We were to see many more in the wild.

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Puya caerulea

When she is not designing, gardening ,and doing countless other things, she organizes and leads botanical  trips to various parts of Chile. I wanted to see the Atacama desert, a 1,000 mile strip of land along the Pacific coast. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world but it had recently received rain and, rumor had it, was full of flowers. So, with Ximena leading the way, off we went.

We headed north, up Ruta 5 towards La Serena. Passing through rolling hills, she uttered an expletive – something to do with seashells and mothers – and screeched to a halt on the side of the road. There was a meadow of  Leucocoryne coquimbensis (Glory-of-the-sun).

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Growing with it was Schizanthus litoralis.

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and many Alstroemeria, including Alstroemeria schizanthoides.


Echinopsis chiloensis , a tree-like cactus, was coming in to bloom.


as was Palo de yegua, Fuchsia lycioides.


We headed north to a nature  preserve (Bioparque Puquén) at Los Molles, on the coast.


Flowering in great numbers was Calandrinia ( Cistanthe) longiscapa with Echinopsis chiloensis and another cactus, Eulychnia castanea.

IMG_3912 As if this wasn’t bounty enough, large clumps of Puya venusta were coming into flower.


Traveling further north towards the center of the desert, things began to change.

IMG_3963 (2)Millions of tiny Helenium atacamensis covered the ground.

And   hierba del salitre (Frankenia chilensis)

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As the ground became more sandy, clumps of  Quinchamalium chilense began to appear.


and in pure sand,


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Cruckshanksia pumila

And dotted in between the yellows and oranges, Alstroemeria wedermanii.

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Driving out of the desert, we stopped for a picnic and watched a herd of  guanaco, a relative of llama, alpaca and vicuna.

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Resting in the warm sun, I began to doze. Ximena on the other hand, had something else in mind. “You must see this”, she said. She pointed to a long, languorous  plant drooping down the rocks.  Bomarea ovallei is a member of the Alstroemeria family. It grows down the rocks with a terminal cluster of red flowers.

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It was beginning to fade in the heat of late spring. So was I.

But there was one more plant I wanted to see – the Chilean Wine Palm. We left the desert and headed south to  a preserve near Ocoa, Parque Nacional La Campana. Although not far north of Santiago, it is little visited by tourists.

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Jubaea chilensis is one of the great trees of the world. To see it in the wild was a great honor.

There were Puyas on the rocks


and, flowering golden yellow, Cassia closiana.


It was a perfect trip.  Made perfect by my guide and friend Ximena Nazal.




Author: urbanehorticulture

A native of England a U.S. citizen for the past 30 years, I have worked in the garden world as a director and designer for over 35 years. I am best-known for my groundbreaking designs at Chanticleer, an estate and “pleasure garden” in Wayne, PA, where I worked for 20 years. Career Highlights I started my gardening life at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England, where I was trained as a gardener. I worked in three other gardens in the UK, notably Portmeirion in Wales, Bateman’s in Sussex, and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. At Bateman’s, I was responsible for the restoration of the 17th-century garden. I came to the U.S. in 1981 and was director and chief designer of Chanticleer in Pennsylvania for the next 20 years. I transformed a moribund private estate into one of America’s most exuberant, romantic and flamboyant gardens. Its glorious 47 acres have been celebrated by gardeners and horticulturists from around the world and, based on my designs, it continues to draw international visitors every season. After twenty years creating Chanticleer, I became vice president for horticulture for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden and, in 2006, was appointed director of the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada. While pleased to be in Canada, my heart yearned for California and in 2008 he was appointed executive director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden. After a successful period in northern California, he returned to his home near Santa Barbara, CA where I operated my own design-consulting business. In 2012, I was lured back east by The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (founded in 1827) and appointed director of its private estate and garden, Meadowbrook Farm. I was commissioned by PHS to design the central feature for the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show, the third major exhibit I have designed for PHS over the years. Among numerous other responsibilities, I have been a member of the board of the Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia and a founding member of the business advisory board for the Flora of North America Project. I have designed gardens in Chicago, northern and southern California, and throughout the Northeastern United States. I have also been a consultant to the Garden Conservancy and to Botanic Gardens Conservation International, as well as serving on the horticulture advisory committee of Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California. I have been the Advancement Advisor for the Flora of North America Association and am now traveling the world researching, interviewing, and photographing for a book on gardens around the world. Books & Awards My n first book, The Encyclopedia of Perennials, was published in 1992 by Facts on File. I also contributed to 1001 Gardens to See Before You Die (Barron's Educational Series, 2012) and The Gardener’s Garden (Phaidon Press, 2014). In 2003, I was awarded the Professional Citation for significant achievements in public horticulture by the American Public Garden Association. In 2007, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded me its prestigious medal for Distinguished Achievement. I currently live in the Bay Area, California.

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The New Perennialist

Musings on plants, gardens, travel, food and sex. Mostly plants and gardens.


for people who want more than gardening from gardens


Uprooting the Gardening World

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