Plant 171

Fitzroya cupressoides (Molina) I.M.Johnst. (Cupressaceae)


Patagonian cypress

A native of wet coastal forests in Chile and Argentina, Fitzroya cupressoides was named after the sailor and meteorologist Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, which took Charles Darwin on his journey to the Galapagos. Patagonian cypress, in its native habitat, can reach heights of over 50 m and diameters of up to four metres, and live for more than 3,000 years. One specimen proved to be 3,622 years old; this is the world's second oldest tree. Its wood was used to reconstruct summer temperatures during this period. Remaining living trees may be even older, but their hollow trunks mean their age cannot be accurately determined. Patagonian cypress is a Chilean national monument.

Fitzroya is not a common garden tree but thrives in the UK. It was first introduced into cultivation by William Lobb in 1849. The tree has fibrous reddish bark, an upright habit, and distinctive pairs of white lines on short, needle-like leaves, which are arranged in whorls around the stem. Specimens in UK collections are necessarily younger and smaller than those in their native range. Until it died in 1990, aged 126, the tallest specimen in the country was at Killerton in Devon, and was a mere 15 m tall.

Traditionally, Fitzroya is more than an ornamental plant, it is a valuable timber tree used for items including ships' masts, buildings and furniture. The export of Fitzroya was an important part of the economy of Chiloé archipelago, which at one time used a currency made from its wood, the 'real de alerce'. There is evidence Fitzroya wood has been used by humans for thousands of years, but extensive logging to supply trade needs over the past 350 years has severely reduced its range and the continuing degradation of its habitat makes it difficult for new trees to establish. These factors have contributed to its status as 'endangered' on the IUCN Red List.

Conservation efforts aim to protect of the species in its natural range, by means of a ban on logging (instituted in 1976) and the prevention of international trade in its wood through CITES. Substantial areas of Fitzroya populations are now encompassed by protected areas such as national parks. Ex situ conservation is also underway; populations in Europe have so far been of limited use in preserving the species as almost all specimens are genetically identical female trees, although more diverse specimens have recently been introduced.

Further reading

Rodríguez-Echeverry J et al. 2015. Impacts of anthropogenic land-use change on populations of the endangered Patagonian cypress Fitzroya cupressoides in southern Chile: implications for its conservation. Oryx 49: 447-452.

Lara A and Villalba R 1993. A 3620-year temperature record from Fitzroya cupressoides tree rings in southern South America. Science 260: 1104-1106.

Ruth Calder