Plant 154

Nothofagus antarctica (G.Forst.) Oerst. (Fagaceae)


Southern beech

Nothofagus means 'false beech'; but Notofagus means 'southern beech. The latter would have been a more appropriate name, and it has been suggested that the German-Dutch botanist Carl Ludwig Blume, who published the name, inserted the 'h' inadvertently.

The genus is restricted to the southern hemisphere, and its 34 species are distributed across southern South America, southeast Australia and Tasmania, New Zealand, New Caledonia and New Guinea. Nothofagus antarctica is a native of temperate South America, with its range extending from Cape Horn through the Andes to some 500 kilometres south of the Chilean capital. Occurring from sea level to 1,500 metres, Nothofagus antarctica is commonly found as a subalpine tree above the evergreen beech forests, and occurs in areas of low temperature, poor soils and steep slopes. It can be found in marshes at higher altitudes, and in the areas of transition between forest and steppe.

Nothofagus antarctica is a deciduous and monoecious. It grows as a tree in Tierra del Fuego but often becomes a stunted shrub towards the northern regions, and in zones of transition. Its leaves are usually one to three centimetres long, broadly ovate to somewhat triangular, heart-shaped or truncate at the base. Rounded at the tip, sometimes slightly lobed, they are always minutely toothed, hairless on both sides except for minute down on the lower-surface midrib. Fruits have four valves, each about five millimetres long with few transverse scales; inside are three nutlets.

In the British Isles, Nothofagus antarctica is perfectly hardy and should be more widely planted. There are few trees that can rival its splendour and elegance as a young plant. It will frequently produce unbranched shoots almost one metre long in a season, adorned with closely set leaves for the whole length. In some forms, when plants are young, the leaves are deliciously honey-scented, a scent that can even be enjoyed into late summer. When planted in an open, sunny position, young plants can produce clusters of stamens in such abundance that they could almost be classed as a flowering shrub.

Some of the oldest trees in cultivation derive from collections made by Henry John Elwes near Lake Meliquina in Argentina, in 1902. As far as is known, no trees of Nothofagus antarctica were planted before that date. John Claudius Loudon gives 1830 as a possible introduction date but the source of this information is unsubstantiated and no specimens are known.

Further reading

Bean WJ 1976. Trees and shrubs hardy in the British Isles. Vol. 3. John Murray.

Ben Jones