Polylepis australis is a tree native to Argentina, where it occurs from the northern Andes mountains to the Sierra de Córdoba, a mountain range in central Argentina. This is the most southerly occurring species in the genus Polylepis.
Polylepis australis is found in high-elevation forests that are considered to be some of the most endangered tropical and subtropical mountain forests in the world. While Polylepis australis was once a dominant part of the forest, occurrences such as fires, logging, and livestock grazing have significantly impacted the wild populations of this species. The remaining populations are now more likely to be found in remote locations far from human disturbances or on steep slopes inaccessible to livestock. These Polylepis forests are also home to many endemic species, making them important ecological features of the region.
In areas that have experienced habitat degradation over the years, reforestation projects have been trialed. In one such project, the natural regeneration of the population was limited; however, the planted seedlings were quite successful. Some of the remaining populations of Polylepis australis occur within protected areas, such as national parks, which helps to maintain the species, while others are still vulnerable to forest degradation
One of Polylepis australis’ most recognizable features is its bark. The tree will produce red-brown, exfoliating bark that reveals beautiful, smooth bark as it peels away. These layers of bark trap warm air that help to keep the plant warm during harsh winter conditions. They also provide a home for insects and nesting material for birds. The species is sometimes known as the filo pastry tree, due to these many layers of peeling bark.
The species was introduced to science in a 1911 publication by Friedrich August Georg Bitter, a German botanist, and lichenologist. Polylepis australis was not introduced to horticulture, however, until the late 1940s when it was grown for the first time at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Photos by Victoria Stewart