Plate 690 Gunnera magellanica

Dysemone integrifolia

St Vincent’s Bay and Bay of good Success, Terra del Fuego

14 Jan - 21st Jan 1769

This plant is a native of Chile, Argentina, The Falkland Islands and the Andean areas of Peru and Ecuador. It was collected from Tierra del Fuego, which is an archipelago off the tip of South America, split between Chile and Argentina. 

The area of water which separates it from the mainland is the Straits of Magellan, named after one of the first Europeans to explore the area in the 16th century. The current Latin name of the plant now reflects this. The Endeavour anchored in the Bay of Good Success on the eastern side of the archipelago, which is now in Argentina.

The collection of specimens from this area proved to be difficult for the botanists. Initially they went ashore through heavy waves in St Vincent’s Bay but there was no safe anchorage there so Captain Cook deemed it necessary to move to the wide, safer Bay of Good Success. 

When the botanists and their servants went ashore their aim was to travel up to the rocky heights of the area, but due to the severe weather, including snow and sub zero temperatures, they were delayed in returning to the ship. Two servants died overnight, so the expedition paid a heavy price. However, they collected over 100 new species of plants, one of which became known as Gunnera magellanica.

The plant itself grows in damp areas and occurs from sea level to 1500 metres. It is a perennial, rhizomatous dioecious herbaceous plant, which in simple terms means it continues to grow over several years, has a fleshy underground stem which can store a food supply for the plant and it has separate male and female flowers, on different plants, both of which need to be present for it to produce seeds. The top growth may die down in winter and then regrow in spring. 

The rhizomes can be split and divided up to produce new plants from a clump but will always be the same sex as the original plant. It forms a mat of foliage with kidney shaped leaves about 7cms across on stalks that are about 10cms high. In the spring it forms flower spikes which in the female plant may go on to bear small red berries. It needs to have permanently damp soil and can grow in sun or partial shade.

Its Latin name honours Johan Ernst Gunnerus, who was an 18th Century Norwegian botanist, and magellanica refers to the area of the Magellan Straits in which it grows. The common names used for this plant in English speaking countries are dwarf rhubarb or devil’s strawberry, known as Frutilla del Diablo in Spanish speaking Argentina. Although there are records of other Gunnera being eaten or used as wound dressings and medicines, this small version does not appear to have been used as such. Joseph Banks also collected another small species called Gunnera lobata, which is illustrated in plate 691 of Bank’s Florilegium.

Species such as Gunnera manicata can be very large and grow to several metres tall, and are often seen in this country in large formal gardens. Some of these species are now regarded as invasive species in the UK, having escaped from gardens and growing in damp areas next to streams and rivers. They are found all over South America and were introduced as here large garden plants in the late 19th century. Our small version, however, was not so dramatic and only recently seems to have appeared as a fashionable garden plant in the UK. 

It requires damp rich soil, can tolerate shade, is not invasive and can be used for ground cover. It has been popular at the Chelsea Flower Show recently, as an unusual specimen plant for those with the right conditions. One of its uses is as a bog plant around ponds or in a damp rock garden as it does not get out of control, and its pretty foliage and habit is well suited to the modern small garden. It is now available from many of the larger nurseries.

In my own garden I have room for a small pond and a rock garden and though I would love to have one of the huge Gunnera species, they are too impractical to consider. Therefore, I will be using our small Gunnera magellanica instead and will remember its past every time I look at it!

Julie Davies