Calafate is a shrub native to Patagonia, and has always been used by the people living there, by colonists as well as natives
Calafate, also known as michay, is a small round fruit which assumes a purple color when ripe. The pulp is sweet and sour, with tiny seeds. This fruit grows on a shrub, Berberis microphylla, which reaches a maximum of 2,5 m in height. It is difficult to pick because of the spiny branches. Not only the fruit of this shrub is edible, also the roots and bark are used, mostly for medicinal purposes: the roots are known to have abortive properties.
This shrub is common in the southern parts of Chile, where it is a collective family activity to pick the fruits, which are used to prepare sweets, juices, fermented beverages and liquors. Even if this practice is still ongoing, and the harvest is always done manually, fighting the spines and the wind, the habitat of the shrub is evermore reduced, with the expansion of urban areas and deforestation.
The origin of this bush is explained in the Selk´nam mythology. When the Selk´nam lived in Tierra del Fuego they were divided into tribes, and two of them were in a great conflict. The chiefs of the two tribes hated each other. One of them had a son who loved to roam the fields. One day he met a beautiful young girl with piercing black eyes and fell in love with her. Unfortunately she was the daughter of his father’s enemy, and the only way for them to be together was in hiding, but then they were separated by the shaman of the girl’s tribe. However, he did not manage to separate them and instead turned her into a plant. This plant conserved the beauty found in her black eyes, but had the spines to keep her lover from touching her. The young man’s love was so strong that he could not stay away, and so he died by her side.
Part of the legend says that who eats the fruits of this shrub, is destined to return to Patagonia, because they will not be able to separate themselves from the strong love present in the calafate. Its attraction is so big, that one cannot stay away from it for too long.
Image: Diego Valdés