The turning of the Fagus!

Tasmania is not the first place you think of when you think of the reds, golds and yellows of autumn spattering the landscape, but we do have one deciduous plant and it’s worth seeking out. Not only is Nothofagus gunnii the only deciduous tree on the island, it is endemic too! That means it grows nowhere else on earth. You may also know it as Fagus, Deciduous Beech or Tanglefoot.

Nothofagus gunnii is a small deciduous tree that can grow up to 2.5 metres tall, sometimes taller in more protected areas. It is fairly short for a tree, though, if you grew on cold, wet and windy mountains then you’d probably be a bit stunted too. It takes on a tangled and twisted form, more akin to a small thick shrub than what one would usually think of as a tree. When growing together in a thicket they can be impenetrable, which is where it gets its common name ‘Tanglefoot’.

Photo by Phil Laroche

They hate fire. If they had legs they would run. Usually when you think of Australian vegetation you think of fire as being a good thing but this isn’t the case for many alpine plants. Like a lot of plants which grow in montane vegetation they are extremely sensitive to fire. After fire there is no regeneration, no throwing out some new shoots here or there or seeds bursting to life. The result is simply death. Luckily, cold and wet habitats don’t burn so readily… Well, they didn’t until we screwed around and put our climate on track for some substantial changes…

As the leaves grow, they unfold like a fan into an almost roundish shape.  They have short stalks and are arranged alternately, in kind of a flat plane along the branches. Their edges are toothed and there are prominent veins which extend to the margin. They are a very distinctive leaf, similar in appearance to those of their close relative Nothofagus cunninghamii (Myrtle Beech)but also totally different. You will see what I mean by that if you compare the leaves next to each other. 

N. gunnii is monoecious. In English, that means that is has separate male flowers and female flowers on the same plant. The flowers appear in summer and are small and usually overlooked. For this plant it is all about the leaves!

Photo by Phil Laroche

Nothofagus gunnii is found mainly in the western, southern and central highlands of Tasmania. Its ideal habitat is at high elevations from about 800m upwards in the mountains, and it’s generally found growing around lakes, on rocky hills and scattered amongst the boulders. Montane areas are known for their unique blend of flora. It’s cold, crappy soils with low nutrients, high rainfall, boggy and wet. Basically, all the things you would expect plants to hate. This is where evolutionary diversity comes in and has led to whole suite of plants ideally suited to these ‘less than ideal’ habitats. The montane areas as described above are hot spots for paleo-endemic species such as N. gunnii. These are species which millions of years ago were widely spread. Over time, due to the changing patterns of climate and the shifting of the continents, they have ended up confined to a smaller, specific area. In this case it is the mountain tops of Tasmania…

And who knows, maybe next year we’ll get to venture into our precious national parks again to see the landscape glow red with the fire of the Fagus!

Fiona Gumboots is a person of many obsessions who spends her time trying to combine them all. Photography and a passionate love of science keeps her out and about exploring everything she can find in the natural world. From the beauty of a sunset and auroras to the intricate details of the world of fungi and the lower plant kingdom, she is never short of something to keep her mind racing. In between her fascination with the natural world she spends her time studying plant science at UTAS, hanging out with her husband and kids, martial arts and generally getting side-tracked with the latest obsession that has caught her fancy.

Feature image: Phil Laroche

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