Nothofagus antarctica, or Antarctic beech, has the distinction of being the most southerly-growing tree species in the world, due to its occurrence on Chile’s Hoste Island.
We’re continuing with an unplanned focus on plants of South America this week. In addition to southern Chile, Antarctic beech is also native to adjacent parts of Argentina. The plant in today’s photograph has been growing in UBC’s alpine garden since around 1982, so far forming a small, somewhat spreading tree of perhaps 8m (~25 ft.). Where conditions for growth in the wild are optimal (photo of small tree in habitat), these trees can reach 25m (~ 80 ft.) in height.
Personally, I wouldn’t want this tree to achieve a lofty height if it meant that the emerging foliage wasn’t accessible in the springtime. One of the scentsual (apologies for the neologism) experiences of mid-April or so is the fragrance of the fresh leaves and buds of Nothofagus antarctica. For that description, I’ll turn it over to Douglas Justice, from the Vancouver Trees App (Android version coming soon, right now it’s on me to get some work done!):
Both the buds and the youngest twigs have a conspicuously shiny resinous coating. At the time of leaf emergence, the swelling buds and expanding leaves produce a subtly captivating sandalwood aroma.
Another account from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences describes them as “deliciously honey-scented“. My take is that it’s somewhere between the two descriptions.
The leaves of the ñirre are no less distinctive. They are ovate, usually no more than the size and shape of an average thumbnail, both crinkly and lustrous deep green, and with minute marginal serrations. Leaves on vigorous, vegetative shoots are often larger, up to 3 or 4 cm in length. Older leaves may be pleasantly aromatic when handled or bruised. The fruits, which typically only appear on cross-pollinated trees in summer, are small reddish, resinous, aromatic capsules, about 6 mm across, that each contain three tiny, roughly triangular nuts. The capsules are borne tight to the branchlets and because of their small size are usually overlooked until they are exposed by the falling leaves. Autumn leaf colour is usually pale yellow or orange brown. Despite the preceding positive remarks, it should be noted that other than its usual habit of leaning jauntily, ñirre is basically an unprepossessing tree, particularly when viewed from a distance. A novelty to be sure and a good conversation piece, but not very exciting in the landscape.
…and he also explains the local common name:
The species is known by the Araucanian name ñirre or ñire (sounds like the French noir), which means “fox.”
This is the first time that the exclusively Southern Hemisphere Nothofagaceae has been featured on Botany Photo of the Day (but not the last!).