Someone dropped lime sherbet on the desert — and it’s melting. Who’s going to clean this up?
Nobody. Because this — believe it or not — is a plant. It may look like a glob of goo, but it’s not at all gooey. It’s solid to the touch, so solid that a man can lie on top of it and not sink in, not even a little.
What kind of plant is this? In Spanish it’s called llareta, and it’s a member of the Apiaceae family, which makes it a cousin to parsley, carrots and fennel. But being a desert plant, high up in Chile’s extraordinarily dry Atacama, it grows very, very slowly — a little over a centimeter a year.
Think about that. If you asked one of these plants, “What did you do during the 20th century?” it would answer, “I grew a meter bigger.” At that rate, plants rising to shoulder height (covering yards of ground, lump after lump) must be really, really old. In fact, some of them are older than the Giant Sequoias of California, older than towering coast redwoods. In Chile, many of them go back 3,000 years — well before the Golden Age of Greece.
They look like green gift-wrapping. One imagines that they are mold-like, wrapping themselves around boulders. But that’s wrong. The truth is much weirder. That hard surface is actually a dense collection of tens of thousands of flowering buds at the ends of long stems, so densely packed, they create a compact surface. The plant is very, very dry, and makes for great kindling.
As the Bolivian guide explains in the video below (the plant can be found throughout the Andes), llareta is such good fuel that, even though it’s very ancient, people regularly use it to start campfires and even, back in the day, to run locomotives. (That’s 3, 000 to 4,000 years of captured sunshine thrown into a steam engine for a quick ride — I’m trying not to think about that.) It’s also good for muscle pain.
The best thing about llareta is what it looks like. It’s like nothing else. You climb 10,000 to 15,000 feet up into the Andes; there are boulders, loose rocks, jagged edges all about, and suddenly you come upon this soft-looking round thing that resembles a lime-green beach ball, and you think, “What is this?” When artist/photographer Rachel Sussman saw her first llareta, she apparently did a little happy dance. As she writes in her new book, “Every once in a while you see something so ludicrously beautiful that all you can do is laugh.”
Artist/photographer Rachel Sussman has some pretty nice photos of llareta in her new book, The Oldest Living Things in the World. You can see and hear Rachel talking about her photos here. Our llareta photos come courtesy of the Terrace Lodge, in Putre, Chile, very near Lauca National Park where, due to melting ice and water vapor floating in, there’s just enough moisture to keep the plants growing.