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A small deciduous tree with a slender trunk usually under 50 ft high in the wild and often occurring as a low, dense shrub in exposed places; bark scaly; young shoots very downy. Leaves 1⁄2 to 1 in. long (occasionally up to 11⁄2 in.), broadly ovate or somewhat triangular, heart-shaped or truncate at the base, rounded at the tip, sometimes slightly lobed, always irregularly and minutely toothed, glabrous on both sides except for minute down on the midrib beneath (or the blade downy on both sides in var. uliginosa (A. DC.) Reiche); stalk downy 1⁄12 to 1⁄6 in. long. Flowers produced during May, the males singly, in pairs or in threes in the basal leaf-axils of small twigs, pendulous, each about 1⁄6 in. across; perianth of male flowers usually five-lobed. Husk of fruit four-valved, about 1⁄4 in. long, each valve with a few transverse, entire scales; nutlets three.
A native of temperate S. America from Cape Horn northward to the Andes east of the Chilean town of Chillan (c. 36° 30′ S.). It is common as a ‘subalpine’ tree above the evergreen beech forests, but sometimes occurs below them in frosty valleys, and occupies large tracts east of the Andes, on the margins of the Patagonian steppe.
The date of the first introduction of N. antarctica is uncertain (see N. betuloides). But it was certainly uncommon in the last century, and even now is rarely met with in gardens. Some of the oldest trees now in cultivation derive from seeds collected by H. J. Elwes near Lake Meliquina in Argentina, in 1902, and no existing tree was planted before that date, so far as is known.
N. antarctica is perfectly hardy and deserves to be more widely planted, for few trees have greater distinction and elegance when young. It makes unbranched shoots as much as 3 ft long in a season, furnished the whole length with closely set leaves. The habit is thin and open, with the branchlets arranged more or less in one plane, as in so many of the southern beeches. In some forms the leaves are deliciously honey-scented when young, and even in late summer the fragrance can still be detected. Some young plants produce stamen-clusters in such abundance that they could almost be classed as flowering shrubs. It needs an open, sunny position.
N. antarctica has attained 50 × 4 ft at Dawyck in Peeblesshire (1966), and at Crarae, Argyll, a tree planted in 1936 is already 40 × 41⁄2 ft (1969). At Wakehurst Place, Sussex, a tree which is probably from the Elwes seed introduction of 1902 measures 42 × 4 ft (1968). At Rowallane, Co. Down, there is a remarkable specimen with nine main stems and a wide spread.
Fertile seed is produced in this country, perhaps more frequently than is realised, for the fruits, being so small, might not be noticed. Self-sown seedlings have appeared at The High Beeches, Handcross. Layering is an alternative means of increase.
specimens: Sheffield Park, Sussex, 59 × 31⁄2 + 3 + 3 ft (1986); Wakehurst Place, Sussex, 50 × 41⁄2 ft (1984); The High Beeches, Sussex, pl. 1910, 40 × 5 ft (1982); Crarae, Argyll, 35 × 43⁄4 ft (1976); Rowallane, Co. Down, this plant broke up and has been removed; Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, Eire, 48 × 53⁄4 ft (1985).