29 April 2011

Yareta –Alien Life in the Andes?

There is something green and alien looking, growing in South America.  On first inspection you might think that it is some extraterrestrial species, using the remote grasslands of the continent to establish a foothold on planet Earth. Yet however alien this looks, this green mass of cells has its origins very much on this world.  This is Yareta and it lives in colonies which can be thousands of years old.

Also known as Llareta in Spanish it is found in only a handful of countries – Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia and grows at altitudes of between 3200 and 4500 meters – below these heights and you will simply not find the plant.  It looks huge but is in fact a colony of thousands of tiny individual flowering plants in the Apiaceae family, formally classified as Azorella compacta.

Yet why does it look so alien, like a green fungus flowing over the ground? It is because of the environment in which it grows.  It is extremely compact so that it will lose as little heat as possible in the extremely cold evenings at this altitude.  Additionally it grows as close to the ground as possible as there the temperature is a good two degrees higher than the mean air temperature of its natural ecosystem.

The yareta is so compact that when local people who used the plant occasionally for fuel for cooking had need for it they were forced to use pickaxes to remove the plant from its home. The dark and compact innards of the plant can be used to create a flammable resin.  As well as being used to cook it is also commonly used to help encourage a fire to start.  At least it was until recently.

The amount of yareta being removed had become so significant the ecologists feared that the plant would become extinct.  So, the four countries in which it grows have now prohibited its extraction – and it is hoped that the yareta will, over time restore itself to its former coverage. Time and solitude are friends to the yarata.

The Yarata stays in leaf all year and is a perennial evergreen and its flowers, when they appear, are pink or lavender in color.  The flowers are hermaphrodite and have both male and female elements meaning that, although it is pollinated by insects, Yarata is self-fertile.

As a native to the Puna grasslands of the Andes the plant has to be hardy but if you still have reservations about the veracity of its earthly origins, try not to worry about an imminent invasion of Yarata in your back yard.  The plant growth rate has been estimated at about 2 centimeters per year maximum. Plus you are more than likely to be living at a low altitude in which the yareta will not grow, let alone thrive.

Although the plant is not used synthetically to create industrially produced medicine, research is being conducted in to its medicinal qualities.  Local people swear by the plant in terms of reducing the pain from rheumatism.  A tea made from its leaves is said to help control blood pressure and diabetes and it was also used as an appetite represent by local people who wished to slim down a little.

It is also known as the cushion plant – when it was given this common name is unknown but the reason remains self-evident.

There is one other odd thing about the Yareta.  They are ancient.  Many colonies of yaretas are thought to be well over three thousand years old which means they started growing before recorded history began.