Curious images of these strange green mounds have been making their way around the interwebs for months now. What kind of alien life form is this? Is it a moss? Is it a fungus? The answer may surprise you!
In reality, this large mound is comprised of a colony of plants in the carrot family! Known scientifically as Azorella compacta, this species hails from the Andes and only grows between 3,200 and 4,500 metres in elevation. Its tightly compacted growth-form is an adaptation to this lifestyle, serving to prevent heat loss in such a cold and windy environment. Every so often, these mats erupt with tiny flowers, which must be a sight to behold!
The colonies expand at the rate of roughly 1.5 cm each year. Large colonies are estimated at over 3000 years old, making them some of the oldest living organisms on the planet! Sadly, the dense growth of the plant makes it highly sought after as a fuel source. Locals harvest the plant with pick axes and burn the dense mats for heat, not unlike peat from bogs. Because of its slow growth rate, harvesting this species has caused a serious decline in numbers. Local governments have since enacted laws to protect this species and some recovery has been documented though, with such slow growth rates, only time will tell if protection is enough.
Mountain coral! Not really. And not actually a Seussian daydream, but another example of the miraculous flora that can be found at extreme elevations. Sadly, the inhospitable and seemingly inaccessible environment hasn’t protected these Azorella from the influence of industry.
Wow, that alliteration got away from me. —MN