Scientific Name: Fitzroya cupressoides
Common Names: Patagonian cypress, alerce
Plant Type: Conical tree or spreading shrub. In cultivation it may grow to
Fmar 50 ft x 20 ft.
Environment: Prefers mild, damp, maritime climate, but will grow in full sun; moist well-drained soil; heavy clay and acidic soils; hardy to -4°F but needs shelter from strong winds.
Bloom: Produces cones, not flowers. The female cones are round in shape and ripen within a year.
Uses:Specimen tree or shrub. Although quite hardy, in cultivation it is more often seen as a shrub. Occasionally specimens may reach 40 feet or more.
Other: Not only is this the tallest tree in South America, in its native habitat this is a very long-lived, slow growing tree with records of it living to more than 3,600 years.
Patagonian cypress, called alerce (Spanish for "larch") in Chile, rivals California's bristlecone pine for longevity and size, some living more than 3000 years. The temperate, coastal forests of southern Chile, the Chiloé Archipelago and Patagonia, are its home, where it gets ample moisture from Pacific storms. "Its remarkable history is a story of contradiction. Says Claire Williams in Forest History Today: "Fitzroya cupressoides is a millennial survivor of large-scale disturbances: glaciers, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Its gradual decline is recent, beginning before the arrival of early humans, and then accelerating with agricultural clearing and logging." Beginning in the 16th century when Spain conquered South America, vast areas of Patagonian cypresses were cut for export to Peru and Europe, used in copper smelting furnaces, or cleared for agriculture. The establishment of National Parks within the last fifty years in both countries has preserved 15% of the remaining stands, although poaching and stripping of bark is still a serious problem in Chile. These conical 150-foot trees, some 10 to 16 feet across, greatly impressed Charles Darwin who named it Fitzroya after the captain of The Beagle, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, when Darwin went ashore at Valdivia, Chile in 1835.
Called the redwood of the Southern Hemisphere, the bark is soft and peels off in strips. The wood was highly prized for its elasticity and lightness and used for shingles, construction, masts, and tools. Its mature leaves are scale-like, flattened, with lines of white stomata along the upper scale surface. It is dioecious, with male and female cones on separate trees. The cones are woody and small and ripen the first year. The seeds are winged and variable. Though the tree grows intemperate rainforests, it is thought that its regeneration could be dependent on catastrophic fires, for there were many fires in the Fitzroya forests set by humans or lightning over hundreds of years and the tree's populations increased. Fitzroya appears to thrive in volcanic, poorly-drained, ashy soil. Our Patagonian cypress in the Bed 54D is a shrubby, 5 foot high youngster, and it needs a few hundred years of growth to show off its lineage.
Douglas Tompkins (1943-2015), conservationist and founder of the sporting goods brand The North Face, and California billionaire, moved to Chile and became a tireless supporter of protecting its forests. In the 1990s, he bought over two million acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, including many acres of old growth alerce forests, to save them from destruction. The land located near Puerto Montt bisected Chile from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes, and his attempts to donate it to the government caused suspicion and controversy. Ultimately, Chile accepted the gift in 1997 and named it the Conservation Land Trust.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Kathy McNeil. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell.