A tree to up to 20 m tall, or a prostrate shrub in harsh environments. Young bark grey-brown with horizontal whitish bands of lenticels, cracking into elongated scaly plates by 15 years of age. Shoots slender (1–2 mm thick), brown, very downy; buds bluntly conic, c. 3 mm long. Leaves deciduous, 1–3 cm long, broadly ovate or somewhat triangular with a rounded tip, cordate or truncate at the base, and almost never plane; rather matt and dark green; finely but irregularly toothed; main veins in 4–6 indistinct pairs; a very fine short erect down may cover both leaf surfaces or be confined to the midrib underneath; petiole downy and very short (2–12 mm). Flowers in spring; male flowers c. 3 mm wide, hanging in groups of 1–3 under the basal leaf-axils of small twigs, perianth usually 5-lobed; female flowers usually in 3s. Cupule 4-valved, 4–6 mm long, each valve with a few transverse, entire scales; nutlets 3. (Nothofagus (2007–2008); Bean 1976).
Distribution Argentina In the southern Andes (Santa Cruz province) and Tierra del Fuego Chile From Maule region south to the tip of Tierra del Fuego
Habitat In wet mountain forests, growing higher than other tree species and in frost pockets; also on the dry fringes of the steppes east of the Andes, and on low-elevation, cold, windswept moorland in the far south of its range.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6b-7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Nothofagus antarctica is one of the toughest and most adaptable members of its genus, and is the species most likely to be seen as an ornamental in places too cold, exposed or drought-prone for any of its allies to thrive. It has the smallest leaves of the deciduous Andean Nothofagus and as such is likely to recall its distant evergreen relatives from New Zealand and Tasmania, N. menziesii and N. cunninghamii. In the wild it sometimes survives as a stunted or prostrate shrub; in cultivation it is almost always arborescent but tends to a picturesque and windswept-looking habit, even in the shelter of woodland, often leaning and with crisp tiers of tiny, quite sparse foliage carried on several near-vertical main stems from a short and typically slanting bole. As such it can give an impression of great age, but like its nearest allies it is really a very fast-growing tree and tends to be short-lived in UK gardens, particularly when periods of hot and dry weather are frequent; it can often show signs of decline after three or four decades.
A very attractive feature is the sweet, cinnamon fragrance of the expanding buds in spring, though this is not consistent between trees or perhaps populations (Bean 1976). Also in spring, the massed whitish male flowers hanging under the expanding leaves are delicately attractive; the stamens turn red just as the flowers open. Autumn colour is usually a muted yellow, with oranges and some reds in the best, acidic conditions.
Trees with especially downy foliage have been distinguished as var. uliginosa (A. DC.) Reiche; this feature seems confined to plants from the northern part of the species’ range (Bean 1976) but is now widely held to be a part of its natural variation and we consign it to synonymy. Planted by the tree connoisseur Nicholas Smith in his remarkable arboretum at Wynkcoombe Hill in West Sussex, UK, two young specimens received as var. uliginosa are distinct in early summer with their shinier, more densely-held foliage.
Heights of 15–18 m are generally suggested as the maximum the species tends to attain in its natural habitats; specimens growing in favoured situations in the UK and Ireland can quickly exceed this, and in 2018 the champion was a tree of 23 m × 77 cm dbh (at 0.5 m on a short distinct bole), one of two planted in 1956 in woodland shelter on a congenial ancient woodland loam over sandstone at the Queenswood Country Park in Herefordshire (Tree Register 2020). It is rarer to see a specimen with a long single trunk, though there are a few such woodland grown examples in the A6 shelterbelt fringe of Weston Park in Staffordshire, whose owner in the mid 20th century, the late Gerald, Earl of Bradford, was a keen experimenter in the genus’ use in forestry in England. A few good trees have grown in significantly alkaline gardens such as Hidcote in Gloucestershire and Dyffryn in Glamorgan, but data suggests that the species’ life expectancy may be particularly brief in such conditions (Tree Register 2020).
A few trial plots of wild-sourced Nothofagus antarctica were established by the Forestry Commission in 1981 at Wykeham Forest (North Yorkshire), Benmore (Argyll) and Dalmacallan Forest (Dumfries and Galloway). Survival rates were excellent, but the species’ typically rugged habit means that it can only be considered as a source of firewood (Mason et al. 2018). In the 1990s it was even mooted as a suitable subject for forestry in the Faeroes and the far south of Iceland (Sondergaard 1997).
Nothofagus antarctica is suspected to have been introduced to Britain as early as 1830; this was the year when Phillip Parker King’s surveying expedition to Magallanes region returned to Britain and was the date cited a few years later by J.C. Loudon for the genus’ first cultivation here (Bean 1976). In 1843, J. D. Hooker sent a Wardian case to Kew containing plants of N. antarctica and also N. betuloides (Bean 1976). H.J. Elwes collected seed (as var. uliginosa) near Lake Meliquina in Argentina in 1902 (Bean 1976); trees believed to have been raised from this collection survived at Wakehurst Place and Kew until the 1980s (Tree Register 2020).
More recently the species has become a familiar ornamental in the UK and Ireland, often planted in public parks and thriving as far north as Inverewe garden, at nearly 58° north, and also succeeding in sites as chilly as the Inshriach Alpine Garden near Newtonmore west of the Cairngorms (Tree Register 2020); it is one of several Nothofagus grown in Olav’s Wood on South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands (Olav’s Wood 2020). In continental Europe, it grows quite well in the Low Countries and in the Val d’Oise in northern France (Nothofagus (2007–2008)); a tall specimen at the Von Gimborn Arboretum in the Netherlands (monumentaltrees.com 2018) is characteristic of mature examples in having subsided almost to the horizontal, with a phoenix crown formed from former side-branches. The species is quite widely planted in Denmark, and thrives in western Norway and southern Sweden (Sondergaard 1997); Søndergaard reported a specimen over 17 m tall at Nygårdsparken near Bergen in Norway in 1997, and a remarkable tree labelled as the cultivar ‘Benmore’ grows at the Gothenburg Botanic Garden, Sweden (T. Christian pers. comm. 2020). A topiarised plant in the Japanischer Garten at Steinfeld in north-west Germany is much photographed online, and probably grows near to the limit historically imposed by the species’ limited tolerance of continental winters. At the University of British Columbia Botanic Garden in Vancouver, Canada, a tree planted around 1982 has grown slowly to about 8 m (University of British Columbia 2008). In the north-western United States the species can do better, reaching 17 m at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, in 1990 (Van Pelt 1996). It is the only Nothofagus species listed as commercially available in Oregon (Oregon Association of Nurseries 2020).
Seedlings are very occasionally found in Britain, as at the High Beeches garden in West Sussex (Bean 1981); they are light-demanding (Mason et al. 2018). Natural regeneration has also been observed at two sites in New Zealand’s South Island (New Zealand Flora 2020), where competition with the endemic species of Nothofagus might become a problem; its relative genetic remoteness from New Zealand’s native species, none of which belong in the subgenus Nothofagus, indicates that interbreeding is less likely to be a conservation issue in that country.
Nothofagus antarctica is quite easy to raise from cuttings, and can also be used as a rootstock for grafts (Nothofagus (2007–2008)).
Plants intermediate in foliage features between Nothofagus pumilio and N. antarctica occur where these species’ ranges meet in the wild (Veblen et al. 1996; Burns et al. 2010), though genetic analysis seems not yet to have been used to confirm hybridisation. Three seedlings intermediate with N. antarctica were also noted by Poul Søndergaard in 1996 in a plantation of N. pumilio near Køge, Denmark, which had been grown from seed collected in the wild by G. Schlätzer; these showed exceptional vigour (Søndergaard 1997). Genetic research has also indicated the presence in the wild of hybrids between N. antarctica and the evergreen N. dombeyi (Stecconi et al. 2004).
Synonyms / alternative names
A mature plant at the Royal Botanic Garden’s garden at Benmore in Argyll (1957.8600B), has grown as a prostrate mat, about 4 m across and 75 cm high in 2020 (Peter Baxter, pers. com.). This slightly resembles the natural habit in the harshest conditions, where the growth-form is environmentally stimulated. The form was once distributed by Larch Cottage Nurseries in Cumbria (Royal Horticultural Society (2018); the Stavanger Botanic Garden in Norway has specimens accessioned in 1983 and 2017 (Stavanger Botanic Garden (2020). In the UK and Ireland, such a plant is only likely to be recorded for The Tree Register if it reverts; this can certainly happen, as at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, where the taller of two planted in the Bog Garden prior to 1977 was 6.6 m tall in 2008, and at Rowallane in Co. Down and Coolcarrigan in Co. Kildare where trees planted as ‘Benmore’ have reached 13 m (Tree Register, The (2020).
A selection made at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, USA, for its rather upright branching (Oregon State University (2020); the habit is sometimes described as columnar (Far Reaches Farm (2020), though in the case of a species with such a naturally wayward and open growth-form, this is perhaps an overstatement. In the climate of Washington State (Far Reaches Farm (2020) the autumn colour is also described as an unusually bright yellow-orange. The cultivar seems not to have been distributed in Europe; unusually straight and slender trees in gardens in the UK and Ireland are presumably sports. One such at Darley Park in Derby was ‘spire-like’ in habit in 2004 when it was 14 m tall (Tree Register, The (2020).
This differs from the typical state of the species only in having the leaves on both sides covered with a very fine, short, erect down. The Elwes introduction mentioned above belongs to this variety and is also rather larger-leaved than normal. But typical N. antarctica may have leaves just as large, and some specimens of the var. uliginosa have small leaves. Judging from the material available, this variety is confined to the northern part of the range of the species, but is certainly not found only in boggy habitats, as the varietal epithet uliginosa would imply.