Species Profile: Calafate
By Chloe Beck (Miami University, Ohio ’16)
Calafate (Berberis sp.) is the common name for a species of shrub within the genus Berberis. Berberis shrubs have many different species covering a wide geographic range from the temperate regions in the Northern hemisphere to the Andes Mountains, and south to the Strait of Magellan. Calafate thrives in sandy and rocky soils making it one of the most iconic and widespread plants of the Patagonian Steppe. The two species found most commonly in Patagonia National Park, Chile, are Berberis buxfolia and Berberis microphylla. These species are usually around two to seven feet tall and are characterized by thorny branches and oblong leaves. In the early spring Calafate bear small, yellow, hanging flowers. The flowers are hermaphroditic (meaning that they have both female and male reproductive parts) and are pollinated by various insects. In the late spring and early summer small blue colored berries grow on the shrubs. Small song birds eat the berries and disperse the seeds.
Birds are not the only ones to eat the seeds of the Calafate. The berries have a bitter sweet taste. Some people choose to eat them plain but they are also made into jams and syrups. Legend says anyone who eats the Calafate berries will return to Patagonia.
Throughout my time in Patagonia I have probably encountered Calafate everyday and I have decided that it is rather bitter sweet…literally and figuratively. Juices of the berry are sweet but the seeds are so bitter that I usually spit them out. On long hikes Calafate is literally a pain because of the thorns snagging on our clothes and scratching us. It is also a treat providing a quick snack along the way. This season’s Round River team has eaten Calafate until our mouths turned blue. There was an exceptionally rainy day where we harvested two tubs of the berries. We had a plentiful supply for the week to put in our oatmeal and to snack on. If the legend is true, at the rate I’ve been eating the berries, not only will I be returning to Patagonia but I will probably be buried here!