Aextoxicon punctatum Ruíz & Pav. Olivillo

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New Trees

Large shrub or tree to 20 m, trunk to 1 m dbh. Bark thick and smooth. Crown rounded and compact, often densely branched. Major branches rather thick and ascending. Leaves evergreen, 3.5–9 × 1.5–3 cm, opposite to alternate and with a distinct petiole, oblong to elliptical, leathery, with contrasting surface colours; upper surface dull green, lower surface grey or ferruginous with a layer of peltate scales, scales also prominent on new shoots and buds, margins entire and revolute, apex acute. Dioecious; flowers yellowish and in short axillary racemes, flower buds globose and densely covered in scales. Male and female flowers similar, 0.1–0.5 cm wide, rather insignificant. Fruit an ellipsoidal drupe, 1 × 0.7 cm, pedunculate, smooth, hard and purple to black. Rodríguez R. et al. 1983. Distribution ARGENTINA: between Lago Puelo in Chubut Province and El Bolsón in Río Negro Province; CHILE: from the Limarí River in Coquimbo Province to Chiloé Is. in Los Lagos Province. Habitat Aextoxicon is endemic to the sub-Antarctic forests of the southern Andes, between 15 and 1000 m asl. It prefers a humid atmosphere, and forms pure forests or mixes with Eucryphia, Drimys and several Myrtaceae. USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Conservation status Data Deficient. Illustration Rodríguez R. et al. 1983; NT120, NT515.

This curious plant bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the larger-leaved evergreen Elaeagnus, with its shoots and leathery leaves covered in a dense, almost metallic-seeming scatter of peltate scales, and the incautious will easily be fooled by a young specimen. The scales become sparser with age. The flowers are small and rather insignificant but are followed by black berries that give rise to its Spanish name, Olivillo or ‘little olive’. Now grown in a number of collections throughout the United Kingdom and in the western United States, and commercially available, this species was first introduced by Harold Comber in the 1920s (Lancaster 2005), but most individuals are from recent introductions. An expedition to Chile in 1998 resulted in the specimen now growing at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, derived from UCEXC 544. This plant was 3 m high when seen in 2005, which suggests that it can grow relatively rapidly in suitable conditions. Although it seems quite hardy in the British Isles, its habitat implies that it will favour milder, wetter rather than hotter and drier conditions. In the wild Aextoxicon punctatum forms dense stands of tall trees (Chilebosque 1999–2008a). The chestnut-coloured wood is popular for furniture-making and interior carpentry.

The black fruits of Aextoxicon punctatum gave rise to the local name Olivillo in its native Chile. Seen here at Los Molinos, Valdivia in May 2007. Image S. O’Brien.

Genus

Aextoxicon

Other species in the genus