Scientific Name: Polylepis spp.
Common Names: tabaquillo
Plant Type: long-lived tree
Environment: All species are native to the mid and high elevation Andes Mountains in South America. Species experience warm, wet summers and cold, relatively dry winters.
Bloom: Insignificant, small flowers in pendant clusters. Petals absent. Flowers late spring, April-May. All species of Polylepis are wind-pollinated.
Uses: Local Andean communities have traditionally harvested Polylepis wood for building, burning directly, and for the production of charcoal. This usage has led to the distinction of "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Polylepis spp. can be found:Native Polylepis australis 5C, 54D, 57A;
Polylepis reticulata 55B;
Polylepis is a genus of about 50 species of woody shrubs and trees - all native to the high elevation Andean region of South America. An uncommon plant in cultivation, their charm is not in their flowers but rather in their dainty, compound leaves and their multi-layered, multi-colored, peeling bark. In fact the genus name Polylepis describes the latter, and is derived from the Greek poly, or many, and lepis, meaning flake or scale.
A relative of the rose, Polylepis is a true flowering plant (and not cone-bearing or spore-producing). However, unlike with most flowers - especially in the showy rose family - Polylepis does not employ animal "go-betweens," or pollinators, to do their reproductive bidding. Instead, they have very simple flowers that lack petals, scent, and nectar, all otherwise used as enticements to draw in animal pollinators. The evolution of the flower marked the first time in the history of plants on Earth whereby plants engaged the animal kingdom to assist them in their reproductive process. Before the evolution of the flower, all plants were pollinated with the assistance of wind or water. Over time, some flowering plant groups have returned to this practice. For example, all grasses are true flowering plants, but all grasses use wind to disperse their male pollen and carry it to female flower parts on surrounding members of the same species. They have no showy petals, no enticing scent, and no nectar reward. Few insect pollinators are found at the highland elevations common to Polylepis, and wind is abundant. The evolution to wind pollination is an adaptation that suits Polylepis very well in its natural habitat.
Fifteen species of Polylepis have populations rated "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the organization that publishes the "Red List of Threatened Species." As Vulnerable species, they are considered high risks for extinction in the wild. For comparison, the giant panda is also rated Vulnerable by the IUCN. As these trees are at times the only woody species growing in their high elevation habitats, primarily between 11,500 and 16,000 feet, they have become an important fuel resource for local, native populations and are significantly affected by removal for building material, firewood, and charcoal. At this elevation, Polylepis has the prestige of being the highest-occurring flowering tree on the planet. A unique distinction, and one that it would surely appreciate retaining!
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Profile by Corey Barnes. Photos by Joanne Taylor and Mona Bourell.