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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Monday, 26 October 2009

Nothofagus - The Not So False Beech

With autumn we often think of trees and colour.  Sometimes if you look closely at a tree you will begin to notice the way it grows, or the way its branches hang.  Often during autumn when our eye is concentrated we also notice the bark of a tree.  Some trees have slightly grotesque bark which comes off in ragged edged plates whilst other have long scar like fishers of tissue which builds up into a micro-landscape.  Other trees have smooth almost silky bark, which has a soft sheen and appears almost stroke-able. (Picture View from Painswick Beacon)

 I wonder that it these similarities we attribute to trees must have been how one of my favourite non-native groups of trees was recognised.  Explorers in Chile discovered Nothofagus oblique and named it ‘roble’ after the Spanish word for oak with which they thought it shared a resemblance.  First introduced in 1902 Nothofagus, meaning false beech is related to Fagus and currently in the family Fagaceae, although it does have marked differences with some taxonomic experts suggesting it should move into its own family Nothofagacea.  Bear with me, plant taxonomic identification is a pet subject for me, and one of my favourite plant family, although an artificial one was always Amentiferae, or as those who prefer all floral families to end with the same ‘acea’ (such as Umbelliferea, now slowly becoming Apiaceae) the group Amentaceae.  Amentiferae is the family of plants, which bear their flowers in catkins, amenta.  This includes Salicaceae, Corylaceae, Betulaceae, Platanaceae, Juglandaceae and Myriceae.  This group was still widely used when I studied 10 years ago but most modern classification systems have not retained the group.

(Picture Nothofagus Obliqua) Nothofagus are a close relative of beech and look strikingly similar.  N. Obliqua is a narrow crowned tree fairly fast growing reaching heights of around 100ft.  At the top of the tree the branches grow upwards whilst in the middle they arch with smaller lower branches spreading out and down, resembling a young fagus.  The leaves are small bearing pairs of veins reaching the edge if the leaf in-between the serrations of the edge as opposed to the tip of the serration which is more common in this type of leaf formation.  The distinctive herringbone pattern the leaves of N. oblique make is shared by only one other member of the family, Nothofagus antartica.

Now the amusing thing with Latin is that the species name we are often taught tells us something indicative about the plant, such as Convolvulsu chilensis, or Aster novi-belgii, both referring to the place of origin or Viburnum sargentii and Crinodendron hookeri both referring to the person who discovered them.  Therefore Nothofagus antarctica should be straightforward however it is in fact native to Chile and Argentina.  It is also the most southerly growing tree occurring on Hoste Island, which is 2200 miles north of Antarctica. 

The Antarctica in its names refers to its extreme hardiness, not surprisingly it does rather well in the United Kingdom.  N. antarctica can reach heights of up to 80ft.  It has a slender trunk with scaly bark and alternative small mid green leaves, which are covered in a sweetly scented wax.  Unlike N. obliqua with its serrated leaves N. antarctica has broadly ovate leaves with crinkly rounded edges, which are almost wavy. (Picture Nothofagus antarctica)

N. obliqua and N. antarctica are both deciduous and turn rich shades of crimson and gold in the Autumn.  Nothofagus betuloides is again native to Chile but is however evergreen.  It can withstand cold temperatures down to -20C and is therefore a very hardy and valuable landscape tree.  It has a columnar habit, up to 80ft and with maturity develops a large almost flat topped head . 

(Picture Nothofagus betuloides) The leaves are very small, ovate, serrated and a rich glossy green.  New growth appears on stunning bronze red shoots.  It has been widely grown in Scotland and has lovely pinkish timber, which being a hard wood makes lovely furniture.
Although Hornbeam, Beech and Lime are my favourite landscape trees, Nothofagus comes very close to them for its merits of inclusion in broader and large scale planting.


Wild Somerset Child said...

This is fascinating, Paul. I love the autumn and winter shapes of trees and spent most of the time when in Wales this last week photographing trees, particularly on the tops of hills with the sky behind them - when it wasn't raining.

Paul Hervey-Brookes said...

Thank you Ann. The sunlight at dusk and in the autumn especially when the foreground is dark and silhouetted against rich golden colours is quite breathtaking I think. Susan Hill sums up trees in Autumn best for me when she describes going into a beech hanger and watching the leaves falling revealing the shapes of the trees like a great cathedral in decline. Are you going to post the pictures on your blog, I would like to see them?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog. I live in America and some of the plants you have mentioned grow well here to. I have grown phytolacca and bergamot's amongst others things in my garden.
All the best, Jake.

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