The Legendary Copihue, the Bell-Flower of Chile.
The glorious Copihue, shining blood red against the green background
The Ancestral Home of the Mapuche and the Copihue
This beautiful flower is usually mentioned in relation to the Mapuche, the indigenous inhabitants of south central Chile, due to the fact that the habitat of both the Mapuche and the Copihue is roughly the same.
The Mapuche once occupied an area that spread from the Aconcagua River near Valparaiso right down to the Chiloe Archipelago. They inhabited the central valley and both the forests of the coastal range and of the foothills of the Andes Mountains.
The virgin forests in this area, with their dense foliage, damp atmosphere and extremely fertile soil composted by the thick vegetation, have provided the ideal environment for the Copihue since prehistoric times.
The Aconcagua Valley
The Copihue in the Lives of the Mapuche
At the start of the 16th century, when the Spaniards arrived to Chile, the Mapuche were still hunter-gatherers, with an incipient agriculture and a very loose tribal structure based on the extended family.
They were not really a warrior nation, but they did practice warfare during tribal conflicts. They developed their warrior expertise when they confronted the Inca conquest, which they repelled.
The armies of the Inca Empire were obliged to withdraw to the Maule River, which became the extreme southern border of that great Empire.
The Maule River, where the Mapuche defeated the Inca armies
The Arrival of the Spaniards
These were the next invaders to come in contact with the Mapuche. The Spaniards tried to establish settlements and towns as far south as Valdivia, but eventually had to abandon this southern territory.
The boundary between the Spaniards and the Mapuche was fixed at the Biobio River, and the hostilities lasted for three hundred years!
The Biobio River, where the Mapuche defeated the Spaniards
The Sun Shines on the Copihue Flowers, Amongst the Trees
The Copihue as a Symbol of the Mapuche
During all these developments, the Copihue occupied a special place in the Mapuche culture.
The modern name is adapted from Mapudungun – the language spoken by the Mapuche. Their name for this flower is “kopiwe” which means something like “hanging downwards”.
For the Mapuche, the Copihue represents many aspects and values.
- It is a symbol of happiness, of friendship and of gratitude
- It is considered to be sacred to them.
- The warriors venerated the Copihue as an Emblem of Courage and Liberty.
- The younger members of the tribes considered the Copihue as the Guardian of their romantic love.
- The Copihue was traditionally used as an adornment during the marriage ceremonies.
- Many Mapuche legends have existed that include the Copihue as a central element.
High Up in the Branches, the Copihue is very Secret
Some Facts About the Copihue
- The flower grows on a vine that may reach over 10 meters in height by climbing among the shrubs and trees of its habitat.
- The leaves are arranged alternately and are rather leathery evergreens.
- The flowers have six thick, waxy tepals which are usually blood red, lightly spotted with white.
- The flowers are long and tube-like and hang down, hence the English name of “Bell-flower”.
- In its natural habitat, the plant is pollinated by hummingbirds.
- The fruit is like a long berry with a tough skin containing lots of small seeds placed in a fleshy body which is edible.
- The new plants that develop from the seedlings can take up to ten years to flower, a characteristic that has contributed to making the plant rather rare.
- In 1977 the Copihue was given legal protection by the Chilean government.
A Close-up of the Underpetals of the Copihue
The Fruit of the Copihue is an Edible Berry
What Is So Special About the Copihue?
The list stated above shows the cold facts about this flower, but what makes it so special?
Basically, its beauty and the natural background of the dark green forests where it hangs high up under the branches.
You really need to see it personally; the photos are lovely, but not as impressive as the real thing!
It has been my privilege to actually see the Copihue in the southern forests, and also to have a few decorating my table, we used to be able to buy them in the market-place.
The petals (tepals) are very thick and glossy, they actually glisten! The legends that surround it imbue the observer with a feeling of reverence that is not easy to explain.
All in all, the Copihue provides a very special experience to the viewer.
The Very Rare White Copihue
The History of the Modern Scientific Name of the Copihue
Our Chilean Copihue arrived in Europe during the Napoleonic period. It was taken there by European botanists who came to South America at that time, looking for new species.
Napoleon’s first love, Josephine, had been set aside by the Emperor because she was barren and he needed heirs. She was currently planning and developing her famous gardens at Malmaison when the Copihue arrived in Europe.
Josephine was famous for her beauty and the Copihue was also very beautiful. As Josephine’s last name was La Pagerie, the botanists named the Copihue Lapageria rosea in her honor, and also provided her with some specimens for her gardens at Malmaison.
The Napoleonic era is now long gone, but the scientific name of the Copihue has persisted through time and is used wherever there are botanical gardens that cultivate the Chilean Copihue.
To mention a couple of these gardens, we have the Botanical Gardens at Kew, UK, where the Copihue has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
The University of California’s Botanical Garden at Berkeley also harbors the Copihue, initially taken there around 1935.
The San Francisco Bay Area seems to provide good climatic conditions for growing Lapageria rosea in the US.
When growing outside its natural habitat, the Copihue needs to be hand pollinated. It is a difficult plant to grow but well worth it!
The Copihue on Display at the Kew Gardens in UK
The Copihue is a Flower of Many Legends
As could be expected, there are many legends attached to the Copihue. This is the one I like best.
"When the Mapuche warriors went off to war, they would spend long periods away from their loved ones and families.
Then the younger maidens would climb to the top of the tallest trees in the forest so that they could look over the landscape and search for the distant warriors.
Very often they only saw columns of smoke and empty scenery. Desolate, they cried as they climbed down from their perches and their tears that fell on the branches and leaves of the trees gave birth to a “flower of blood”, which glistens with the blood of the Mapuche warriors who did not accept defeat and generally fought to the end."
A lovely legend for a mystic flower!
A Display of Lovely Copihue Flowers
The Copihue, Poem and Song
Ignacio Verdugo Cavada presented us with his poem inspired by this lovely flower. In it, the Copihue speaks using the first person. My very free translation is as follows.
I am as a spark of fire, and I open my red petals in the dark shade of the forest.
I am the flower that shows itself next to the native dwellings.
My blood-like petals harbor the tears of the Mapuche from the Arauco Region.
I was born on a serene day, a product of a bright ray of sunlight that made love to the dark forest on the mountains of Chile.
My blood has wet the chains that the Mapuche destroyed, those same chains that the mountain snow has covered with its tears.
I am the blood of the inhabitants of Arauco, born of pain.
Nowadays the fires spread by the ambitious who crave material riches are destroying my living space.
So I will hide my sorrow in the deepest corners of the forest where my mountain cats still roar and my native inhabitants await to join my tears.
After this poem was published, in a Chilean newspaper around 1911, a fiend of the author composed the music, which is very lyrical.
During my years of schooling, both the song and the poem were a must; it was almost automatic to learn the words and sing the song. I even learnt to play it as part of my piano lessons. Nowadays it seems to have faded into oblivion, like so many other traditions.
The Copihue, a flower of many legends
Rayen Quitral, the Mapuche Lyrical Soprano
Rayen Quitral (1916 – 1979), a Mapuche with a beautiful soprano voice, was trained in Europe as a lyrical singer during the first half of the 20th century.
Her name means “Flower of Fire”, and she was ever proud of her Mapuche ancestry, while singing on the European stages.
In Chile she was famous for her interpretation of “El Copihue Rojo” and to my surprise I found a vintage audio version on YouTube, which I’m including here.
I hope you listen and enjoy it!
Rayen Quitral sings El Copihue Rojo (1938)
The Bell-flower of Chile, the beautiful Copihue, has ever been a part of the Chilean nation, from the little known years of pre-historic times right up to the present.
On the 24th of February of 1977, the Chilean government published the official statement that gave the Copihue the status of “the National Flower of Chile”.
At the same time, this special plant with its lovely, mystic flower was included in the list of highly protected species.
It is to be hoped that these measures will help preserve the Copihue for our future generations.
© Copyright joanveronica 2013 (Joan Robertson)