Cattails, amaranth, clovers, and dandelions are all typical plants of choice for the survivalist, but what about the frailejon? If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry; most people outside South America have never even seen one before. These amazing survival plants are only found in a very specific region of the Andes, where the climate is just right for them to flourish.
For hikers, explorers and other outdoor enthusiasts traveling in this part of the world, frailejones can serve as a critical survival and medicinal plant. When the going gets tough, these plants are your best friends. Or, you could use your knowledge of frailejones to impress fellow travelers next time you’re hiking in the Andes.
There are many plants helpful for survival that you can grow at home, check out our list here.
Frailejon is immediately recognizable. While exploring the foggy flanks of the northern Andes, you’ll no doubt catch glimpses of shadowy, slender figures dotting the landscape. These silhouetted forms can look like other hikers in the fog, but on closer inspection, you’ll find something much stranger.
A plant, anywhere from a few centimeters to a few meters high. It might look like a cactus at first, but the leaves are soft, and the spines feel more like fur. The twisted stalk gives way to a spongy mass of leaves bunched at the top, and you might see yellow flowers poking up here and there. Botanists call this wacky-looking plant the espeletia, but most locals simply call them frailejones, or friars. Indeed, they certainly look priestly, with their shaggy forms vaguely resembling cassock-clad monks in dim light. At night, the frailejones can be a bit of an otherworldly sight when hiking in the Andes.
Where Can You Find Frailejone?
In areas where they’re endemic, frailejones can cover the landscape like a spongy blanket. They’re most commonly found in Colombia, along with the western highlands of Venezuela and Northern Ecuador. Failejones also grow in some parts of Peru, but are not particularly common. In all four countries, you’ll only see frailejones on the paramo.
The paramo is a high altitude tropical ecosystem. It is usually wet, windy, and cold, and sometimes resembles moorlands. As for the frailejones, they typically grow on paramo at altitudes of 1800 to 4700 meters. However, this height can vary, depending on the specific climate of the paramo. In general, however, you can expect to find frailejones on any high altitude slopes in wet and cold regions. In some places, it’s hard to walk without stepping on one; elsewhere, it can be challenging to find even a single plant.
General Survival Uses
Frailejones have a surprisingly diverse set of applications for campers and survivalists. Next time you’re in the northern Andes, try out a few of these for yourself. Bear in mind, however, that the frailejon is considered endangered due to agricultural clearing.
In some areas where the plant is plentiful, it can seem harmless to take a few leaves for yourself, but keep in mind that frailejones grow exceptionally slowly. So if you need to harvest the plant for yourself, do so sparingly. Only take a few of the outer leaves from limited plants where permitted. In some areas frailejon harvesting is banned, while in others it is entirely acceptable. When in doubt, play it safe and refrain from picking this plant.
The rocky, wet terrain of the paramo offers very few spots for the weary traveler to sleep for the night. Luckily, the frailejon can save the day. The wide, spongy leaves of the frailejon make an excellent camping mattress or pillow. Simply harvest dry leaves, evenly pile them, then lie down to compress them a bit. Stuff them inside a plastic bag to make a decent pillow, or heap them under your tent for a little extra comfort in the night.
In Venezuela, you’ll often see local hikers harvesting frailejones by the armload, piling them into ridiculously high improvised mattresses. Don’t copy this wasteful behavior. Instead, take only what you need, and do so sparingly.
Frailejones make an excellent addition to any improvised shelters, such as a lean-to, wedge hut, or round hut. Packing them all over the walls will offer protection from the wind while helping keep the precious warmth inside.
Along with being suitable construction material for bedding and improvised shelters, frailejones also purportedly have some serious health benefits. They are believed to ward off altitude sickness. An attribute that makes them quite a popular survival plant among travelers hiking in the Andes.
A common folk cure for altitude sickness, frailejon leaves can be used to make a bitter, but tasty tea. Boil washed leaves vigorously for at least 10 minutes, then drink hot. You should use roughly one medium-sized leaf per cup of water. Cinnamon is also traditionally added for a bit of flavor. I’ve tried this myself, and find it can be pretty refreshing and helps with the symptoms of mild altitude sickness.
Boiling the tea further will lead to the liquid forming into a thick mess of bitter yellow syrup. It might look gross (and ruin your cooking pot), but Andean locals claim it can help with asthma and other respiratory problems. At altitudes like these, anything to make breathing easier is welcome.
Bonus tip: frailejon nightcap
As a final ode to the glorious frailejon, let me introduce perhaps its greatest application: as booze. On a cold Andean night, a frailejon nightcap can work wonders, easing sore muscles and helping even the most restless traveler get their Zs on.
To try it for yourself, begin by making the frailejon tea described above. Add a tablespoon of cinnamon, two tablespoons of sugar, a dash of cardamom and a bit of nutmeg, depending on taste. Simmer for a few minutes after the initial vigorous boil, and add either aguardiente (basically moonshine) or a spirit of your choice.
In Venezuela, I’d opt for their excellent rum, while in Colombia you’re better off sticking to an aniseed liquor. In Ecuador, trago de caña will do the trick.
After a total of 15-20 minutes of boiling, strain the leaves and drink hot. You’ll thank me.
So what do you think? Will you be keeping an eye out for this legendary plant on your next trip to the Andes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.