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The giant Quillay of the Chilean Andes

Santiago, the capital of Chile, is ideally placed at the foot of the Andes Mountains - one can escape into nature within just a few minutes. In the foothills of the Andes grows the "sclerophyllous forest" that occurs in the Central Zone of Chile. The trees growing in this region are used to poor soils and a dry climate, experiencing only three months of partial rains. On my recent tour to the area, I wanted to visit a solitary Quillay (Quillaja saponaria) once again - a stately tree growing at 1,900 meters above sea level. It's the largest known example of the species. Access to this tree requires a climb of about three hours.

Quillay (Quillaja saponaria) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains

The Quillaja saponaria is an endemic tree from the central zone of Chile. The popular name Quillay comes from the Mapuche word "Küllay", which means "to wash." Indigenous people have used it as soap to wash clothes, hair and teeth.

Its scientific name saponaria means "soap," because the bark can be made into a powder that serves as soap. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the massive exploitation of its bark for export to Europe and North America led to the destruction of many Quillay forests. For this reason, since 1944, the extraction of its bark requires special authorisation.

In recent years, Quillay saponins have been a source of key ingredients for vaccine production, including the experimental Novavax COVID-19 vaccine.

Original blog posted in Spanish, by Rodrigo Fernandez (see Spanish blog page).

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