Tree to 20 m, generally with a straight bole to 1(–1.5) m dbh, branching low, sometimes devloping several trunks (especially in cultivation). Bark thin, smooth at first, exfoliating in stiff strips on older stems, brownish-grey, or reddish when freshly exposed, especially when wet. Branches shallowly ascending when young, soon arching; youngest branches and branchlets drooping to pendulous; crown pyramidal to rounded, domed in older trees. Branchlets slender, drooping, pendulous on old trees, glabrous, finely grooved between leaf bases. Terminal buds small, globose, with ovate-triangular imbricate scales. Leaves narrowly linear-lanceolate, (3–)5–12(–15) × 0.3–0.7 cm, curved or more or less straight, lax, base gradually tapering, petiolate, apex gradually tapering, acute, lustrous mid- green above, paler below; midrib raised above at least in lower ⅔ of leaf, very narrow, <0.4 mm, raised below along entire length of lamina with two faint, irregular bands of very small stomata either side. Pollen cones solitary or several on a common peduncle, cylindrical, very slender, 25–50 mm at maturity. Seed cones solitary, pedunculate, peduncle 1–2 cm, with 2–3 bracts which fuse to become a swollen, fleshy receptacle, 5–6 × 4–5 mm long at maturity, ripening to rich red. Seed including the epimatium ovoid, pruinose-green ripening purple, 7–8 × 4–5 mm. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011; Gardner et al. 2006).
Distribution Chile Biobío, La Araucania, Los Lagos, Maule
Habitat Forests, 0–1200 m asl, typically near watercourses in Nothofagus obliqua or N. glauca forest in the northern part of its range in Chile's mediterranean climatic zone. Further south and at altitude in the Andes it may form pure stands in damp areas, ravines, river terraces etc. in mild-temperate forests.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Vulnerable (VU)
Exotic, elegant and enigmatic, Podocarpus salignus is one of the more familiar tree-forming podocarps in northern temperate gardens. Large specimens are mostly confined to the Atlantic fringe of western Europe, especially Ireland and southwest England, but gardeners have been pushing it beyond this comfort zone for some time. Indeed, it may prove one of the beneficiaries of climate change in Europe.
Endemic to a swathe of central Chile, Willow Leaf Podocarp occurs over a broad ecological range: in the north, in the Mediterranean zone, it is a component of riparian forests in humid valleys at elevation, often forming a sub-canopy beneath various southern beeches including Nothofagus obliqua, N. glauca, and N. dombeyi; in the south it occurs over a broader altitudinal range and may be found in the northern Valdivian rainforests with a broad range of associates. In a few locations it associates with the conifers Austrocedrus chilensis and Prumnopitys andina (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).
Although its timber is useful there is little evidence to suggest Mañío, as it is known in Chile, has ever been over-exploited for this, but it has suffered dramatic losses in recent decades as its habitat has been lost to agriculture, hydroelectric schemes, fire, and conversion to plantation forestry. Old-growth trees are rare, as are pure stands; it is almost always a secondary component of the forests it inhabits and it is now classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).
Podocarpus salignus was discovered for modern botany by Dombey during his stay in Chile from 1782–1785, and later described based on his specimens. The first introduction to cultivation was probably an 1849 collection by William Lobb, made during his second expedition to Chile on behalf of the Veitch Nurseries (Kent 1900). Little is known about the reception it received on arrival, but Bean was later most enthusiastic, calling it ‘by far the most elegant and distinct of all the podocarps that can be grown successfully in this country’ (Bean 1976).
Interestingly, Bean did not consider any of the largest P. salignus to be traceable to Lobb’s introduction; he considered all extant trees to be of later date (Bean 1976). One of the most remarkable groups of mature trees is at Caerhays, Cornwall, where four trees closely planted in 1926 have matured evenly into a scene of great beauty (pers. obs.). Indeed, P. salignus is one of the most useful ripostes when a discerning dendrologist is faced with the accusation that ‘conifers are boring’ or, worse, ‘they all look the same’. The latest edition of the Hillier Manual perfectly captures its ornamental qualities: ‘A well-grown specimen creates an almost tropical effect with its lush piles of evergreen, glossy, willow-like foliage’ (Edwards & Marshall 2019). It would be an omission not to add to this description some mention of the particularly beautiful hues of green seen in this plant, and how very tactile the foliage is – a well-furnished tree can be as inviting to the touch as a beautiful swathe of grasses in a border.
Unfortunately, even the most recent edition of the Hillier Manual continues to repeat an elapsed truth, that this species is hardy only ‘in the South West [of England] when given the shelter of other evergreens’ (Edwards & Marshall 2019). Although this region, together with the island of Ireland, is home to the greatest concentration of fine examples to be seen outside Chile, for some time now gardeners in Britain and elsewhere have successfully established this species in collections well beyond this traditional stomping ground. Bean himself noted it was hardy ‘in a sheltered position as far east as western Kent’ (Bean 1976) and superb examples have been known for many years in collections like Bedgebury, Wakehurst, and at the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park, where a tree makes a particularly handsome specimen in the middle of a lawn. Several fine trees grace the gardens of France’s Atlantic coast; the one at Jardin Kerdalo in Brittany, illustrated below, deserves special mention.
Alan Mitchell measured the tallest cultivated tree on record, at Powerscourt, Ireland, in 1995 when it was 24 m × 0.94 m dbh; it has since been lost and the tallest is now a 22 m tree at Tregrehan, Cornwall. Also lost, in 2010, was the one-time champion at Ardnagashel, Cork, which measured 20 m × 1.13 m dbh just prior to its demise; this remains the largest girth recorded on a single-stemmed tree. Many other records are scattered predictably across the milder counties of south west England and Ireland, but more surprising is a tree in Hastings, East Sussex, which measured 19 m × 80 cm dbh on a clean bole in 2019. Large trees in Scotland are scarce; the largest by a significant margin grows at Stonefield Castle Hotel in Argyll, 17 m × 56 cm dbh in 2012 (Tree Register 2023).
The International Conifer Conservation Programme has distributed wild-collected P. salignus to numerous ‘cold’ collections in recent years, including to the Yorkshire Arboretum in northeast England and to Scone Palace near Perth in Scotland, as well as to private gardens in Angus, Fife, Perthshire, and east Ross-shire (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2023). After a succession of mild winters nearly all these young plants are establishing well (pers. obs.) but it is important to note that young trees remain vulnerable to extreme cold for many years, and will often become multistemmed due to snow damage. Those plants distributed to milder gardens will, of course, produce the great trees of the future. Perhaps one of the most remarkable young plantings is an avenue at Kilmacurragh, Ireland, planted to replace an avenue of ancient yews that had tragically succumbed to Phytophthora.
Records of notable specimens elsewhere are frustratingly scarce in literature, but a quick scroll through the search results for ‘#podocarpussalignus’ on Instagram reveal plants growing happily in many locations one might expect, including Tasmania and Victoria in Australia, in Oregon and Washington in the USA, and of course in its native Chile where its ornamental qualities are aptly appreciated.
For many years, plants resembling Podocarpus salignus but with slightly shorter, straighter, and stiffer leaves have been circulating in British and Irish gardens. Once considered to be an atypical form of P. salignus, the modern consensus is that this material is of hybrid origin. A 2001 study examined the genetic integrity of seedling ‘P. salignus’ from Tregrehan (Cornwall, UK) where several mature female trees of P. salignus were extant at the time but no male trees, the only male podocarps of similar age being P. totara and P. laetus. The results proved hybridisation was taking place between P. salignus and at least one of the New Zealand species, but could not determine which (Allnutt et al. 2001).
It seems probable that such hybrids would have arisen on multiple occasions in multiple gardens (notwithstanding that there are very few gardens where both species survived from early introductions – only Tregrehan and a handful of others could be considered). This would go some way to explaining the variation in these hybrid plants, some are remarkably vigorous and upright, while others are slower and more densely branched or even shrubby (pers. obs.).