Journey to the Juan Fernandez Islands - February 2005

December 5, 2013

Article published in the BPS Pteridologist Magazine – May 2006

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Journey to the Juan Fernandez Islands

Billy Alexander. 28 Mount Eagle Rise, Leopardstown Heights, Dublin 18, Ireland

The Archipiélago Juan Fernández is situated in the Pacific Ocean, 670 km west of Valparaíso, Chile at latitude 33 oS. It consists of several volcanic islands, the principal being Isla Robinson Crusoe, also known as Isla Más-a-Tierra, and located closest to continental South America. The uninhabited Alejandro Selkirk Island (Isla Más-a-Afuera) is a further 180 km westwards. Also uninhabited is Isla Santa Clara, actually no more than an islet, and just 1 km south-west of Robinson Crusoe Island. The population of the archipelago is about 600, almost all living in the only town, San Juan Bautista, on the main island. Here the visitor finds no banks, no post office, no cars, no keys to the door of the accommodation, no price lists or menus – giant lobster is the usual dish. Also there is no meat, few or no vegetables, and land transport is just a couple of jeeps.

The primary purpose for visiting Juan Fernández was to see the massively-trunked Blechnum cycadifolium in its native habitat. The species is endemic to these islands and not available in horticulture. For a long time I have wanted to compare it with some of the other large Blechnums of the Southern Hemisphere which I find very attractive – the B. chilense and B. magellanicum of mainland Chile, and the South African B. tabulare.
In late February 2005, my companion Ray Sheehy, a fellow plant lover, and I arrived in Santiago where we spent the night. Next morning, a taxi took us to the grandly-named Tobalaba Airport, actually just a deserted hanger. Other passengers eventually appeared for the 2.5 hour, 800 km, flight to the Islands in a small 14-seat aeroplane. The plane’s owner, Don Carlos Griffin, was on board so we were treated to a circuit of Robinson Crusoe Island before landing on the bumpy, dirt airstrip. There was then a walk of about 1.5 km to the jetty, which is situated on a bay formed from a volcanic crater. Fur seals were in residence. At the jetty, all the bags were already there except mine (which eventually was found!)
Instead of an airport bus into town, we had to get into a small boat with an outboard motor. This took us on a 2 hour ocean trip around the coast, fortunately on a calm sea in nice weather. The destination was San Juan Bautista, on the shore of the safe anchorage of Bahia Cumberland, and our home for the next four days.
Walking up the pier looking for accommodation (nothing booked of course) I saw a wonderful, obviously-planted, tree fern which looked like Dicksonia externa. It was at this point I learnt that this species is endemic only to Alejandro Selkirk Island, a mere 180 km away. It does not grow naturally anywhere on Isla Robinson Crusoe. So much for my research!
After a good night’s sleep, despite plenty of mosquitoes keeping us company, the programme started with a trip to Puerto Frances. This required a 45 minute journey by boat to a very barren beach. Soon, however, we saw Gunnera peltata lining the banks of a stream and then our first Blechnum cycadifolium, albeit only small, young plants. The walk proceeded up a hillside and into woodland which had a lovely climbing fern, identified by our knowledgeable guide (all trips must be taken with an official guide), as Arthropteris altescandens. Further on, we came across another Blechnum which we were advised was Blechnum schottii, and some large Lophosoria quadripinnata.

Dicksonia externa on Isla Robinson Crusoe, where it does not occur naturally. This cultivated specimen is one of only two on this island.

At the top of the hill there was a sheer drop of 300 metres to the sea below. Unfortunately, due to the thick mist, the view was very poor and the nearby Isla Santa Clara not visible. However, there was plenty of vegetation to enjoy on the cliff face. We returned down the wooded mountainside in ever-worsening rain, and got thoroughly soaked.

Our second day provided the highlight of the trip. The objective was the peak Mirador Selkirk at 565 metres above sea level and owing its name to Alexander Selkirk of Robinson Crusoe fame. It was here that he allegedly climbed each day to look for passing ships. We took the trail to the top, a hike of about 2 hours. There were numerous ferns, including many B. cycadifolium, but only small plants. B. chilense was also plentiful along the sides of the path.

Above: Mirador Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe’s lookout point, with masses
of large-trunked Blechnum cycadifolium on the hillside.
Below: close up of B.cycadifolium.

As we neared the top, the plants became more dramatic and larger. Whilst the lower slopes were relatively dry, at higher altitudes they became increasingly wetter and the vegetation correspondingly lush. Under such favourable conditions, L. quadripinnata became truly massive. Its 2 m fronds arched over us as we sat on a bench in the forest of trees and ferns and enjoyed the spectacular views out over Bahia Cumberland and the surrounding steep lush-green covered mountainsides. The endemic palm, Juania australis, poked its fronds above the canopy. This summit of Mirador Selkirk was one of the best vantage points in any of my travels, anywhere.

Above: Arthropteris altescandens.
Below: Blechnum schottii.

However, for pteridologists the best was still to come, when we met the largest and oldest B. cycadifolium anywhere on planet Earth, which is stating the obvious as they grow to this size nowhere else! The fat, black trunks were truly massive, and seemed to twist and bend around the mountainsides and up and down gullies. In general appearance they were quite similar to the mature, large-trunked B. tabulare that I had seen in South Africa, but smoother and fatter. They were abundant in this particular area, so I climbed a little further to nestle among them and enjoy the moment of communion. It was hard to estimate their age but I guessed that some might easily be more than 100 years old.

Enormous J-shaped trunk of B. cycadifolium, flowing down the hillside and then turning upwards.

Descending to the west of the Mirador, the trail went through further lush forest, dripping in moisture and hugely rich in plant life. It had a tropical feel to it, with monster ferns greeting us at every turn along the winding path down the hillside. It was here that we saw Thrysopteris elegans at its most magnificent. True, it just doesn’t have a trunk but it scarcely needs one, as the stipes can reach up to 2 m with a huge frond at the top, not unlike a Gunnera leaf.
Another treasured moment was the first sight of Dicksonia berteriana in the wild. Having my own small specimen that had been carefully nurtured for 5 years, I could look 50 years into the future. On the slopes above and below the pathway there were other large specimens, with big thick trunks more than 2 m high and similar to the New Zealand D. fibrosa. Contrast was provided by the bamboo, Chusquaea fernandesiana, which is endemic to these islands, and which grows prolifically where lighting conditions allow.
Our third and last day of exploration had the intended destination of El Yunque, the highest point on the island, at 915 metres above sea level and home to the Yunquea tenzil a tropical large-leafed plant and another endemic. We walked for about 3 km in very pleasant countryside but with few ferns to attract attention.

When we reached the plateau area, hundreds of absolutely massive Gunnera greeted us. There was literally a forest of them, with huge trunks, some so heavy that they snaked along the ground and then up towards the light. Their enormous leaves provided a canopy for sheltered strolling.
Beyond the Gunneras was a walkway through very pleasant forest with many ferns, but neither T. elegans nor D. berteriana. Instead there were Blechnums, including some small B. cycadifolium, or possibly Blechnum schottii. There was nothing large or trunked.
It would appear that the B. cycadifolium does best in open, exposed areas. Unfortunately we did not find the way to the very top of the mountain so we headed back down the path into the town. On the way, we came across the only other D. externa in cultivation on the island. It had about a 1.3 m trunk and a lovely crown of fronds. The frond tips arched backwards and the texture was quite rubbery to the touch.
There was an early start next day for the 2 hours on the ocean in the open boat (with outboard engine), to get back to the airstrip. I didn’t feel well at the start and got progressively worse as seasickness took hold in the rough seas. The waves broke over the bows to dampen my spirits further. Luckily I had missed breakfast, otherwise stale bread and terrible coffee would have been lost overboard! After what seemed an eternity, we made it back to Bahia del Padre at the top of the island, soaking wet but delighted to be on solid land again. In my fragile state, I hopped into the old Land Rover with the rest of the bags, to get a lift to the airstrip.
The plane was full, due to the summer season coming to a close. Once airborne, we got one last look over the island before turning east for Santiago. Altogether, we had had a very memorable trip and strongly recommend it to all pteridologists.

Checklist of ferns, seen and identified by me or others, during our visit to Isla Robinson Crusoe:
Adiantum chilense
Asplenium obtusatum
Asplenium stellatum
Arthropteris altescandens
Blechnum chilense
Blechnum cycadifoliu
Blechnum hastatum
Blechnum schottii
Dicksonia berteriana
Dicksonia externa
Histiopteris incisa
Hymenophyllum plicatum
Lophosoria quadripinnata
Megalastrum inaequalifolium
Pleopeltis macrocarpa
Polypodium intermedium
Pteris chilense
Rumohra berteroana
Serpyllopsis caespit
Thrysopteris elegans