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An emergent evergreen tree up to 40 m tall and 2 m dbh in its native range. In cultivation forming a single or multi-stemmed tree or large shrub of strongly upright habit when young, so far up to 22 m tall and 0.8 m dbh. Young shoots are densely hairy. Leaves simple, oblong, leathery, with shallowly toothed margins sometimes becoming slightly revolute on old growth, dark green above, grey and downy beneath, with a cordate base, 3.5–7.5 cm × 2–3 cm. Flowers produced singly, 4–5 cm across, fragrant, stamens very numerous with terracotta coloured anthers. Fruiting capsule woody, 1.5 cm long with seven to nine valves (Cullen et al. 2011; Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).
Habitat Valdivian rainforest of south-central Chile and adjacent Argentina.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-11
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Near threatened (NT)
Native to the Valdivian rainforests of south-central Chile and adjacent Argentina, from sea level to c. 1000 m asl. Particularly in the northern part of its range these forests have been heavily exploited and great areas have been lost over the centuries to land use change. Besides this historic decline due to forest clearance, Ulmo continues to be exploited for firewood and is considered by many Chileans to be the very best wood for this purpose, and unsustainable harvesting for the firewood market continues (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).
In the southern part of its range the picture is brighter: it is increasingly common in the more rugged landscape south of Puerto Montt where the forests are less disturbed. Here its associates include Nothofagus dombeyi, N. nitida, Fitzroya cupressoides, Podocarpus nubigenus, Caldcluvia paniculata, Lomatia hirsuta, Myrceugenia exsucca, Weinmannia trichosperma, Desfontainia fulgens, Drimys winteri, Raukaua laetivirens and Philesia magellanica. These old-growth forests with emergent Ulmo are an impressive site, particularly in late summer when the canopies are covered in the beautiful white flowers and individuals can be picked out even from a great distance, especially when travelling by boat through the fjords.
A similar experience is possible on the approach by ferry from Oban to Craignure on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. Just south of here the James family, formerly of Torosay Castle, planted up a forestry compartment with a range of Chilean natives in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the 1990s. Among the many Myrtles, Monkey Puzzles and Podocarps, several E. cordifolia and E. glutinosa have thrived, and the taller-growing cordifolia can be picked out on the east-facing hillside from the deck of the ferry when they are in flower!
The west coast of Scotland is home to many fine examples of this species. Probably the northernmost in cultivation anywhere in the world is a 13 m tree at Inverewe, at 57.7°N. Further south in Wigtownshire in Scotland’s extreme southwest is Castle Kennedy, which has (in 2018) the tallest example in the UK and Ireland, a 22 m tree with a dbh of 0.79 m. This tree’s planting date is unknown, but it is certainly old and still flowers prolifically and sets viable seeds – seedlings regularly come up in the surrounding undergrowth. The Castle Kennedy tree is only slightly smaller in girth than the largest girthed tree in the UK and Ireland: an 18.4 m tall example with a dbh of 0.83 m, growing at Coolattin Park, County Wicklow, Ireland (The Tree Register 2018).
The western seaboards of the UK and the island of Ireland are home to the best trees of E. cordifolia in this area. Besides the aforementioned examples other notable trees may be found at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, at Tatton Park in Cheshire, at Portmeirion in Gwynedd, at Porlock House in Somerset, and in many gardens in Devon, Cornwall and across to the island of Ireland from County Down in the north, south to Cork and Kerry. There is also an interesting cluster of examples in the counties to the south of London, in gardens in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, such as Nymans, Grayswood Hill and Leonardslee.
Elsewhere, it is cultivated on the west coast of North America, for example at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle (University of Washington Botanic Gardens 2018) and at the arboretum of California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State University 2006). It is also present in select collections in Australia and New Zealand and while it is commercially available here and in the west coast USA, it would seem to lose the popularity contest with the hardier hybrids E. × intermedia and E. × nymansensis.
The absence of notable specimens from continental European collections, and indeed from colder parts of the UK and Ireland, is indicative of the species’ intolerance of cold winters. It is surprising though that there are no definitive records of notable examples cultivated further south in Europe, particularly in areas such as the Serra de Sintra in Portugal and the Italian lakes, where the climate ought to be most appropriate. There is an unconfirmed report of a tree in Scherrer Park in Morcote, on the Swiss side of Lake Lugano (Morcote Turismo 2018).
There is conflicting information available about the dates of introduction of this and the other species to cultivation in various countries. Bean, referring of course to the UK and Ireland, states it was ‘introduced in 1851’ but gives no further details (Bean 1981), while Gardner et al. (2015) say that ‘Although there is no precise date for its introduction to cultivation outside Chile, it is recorded as having flowered for the first time in southern England in 1897’. To have been introduced in 1851 and to have then taken over 40 years to flower for the first time seems surprising given our fuller understanding of the species today, but it is possible, especially if the original introduction failed to establish and it was then re-introduced.
The picture in North America is even less clear. Jacobson (1996) doesn’t mention E. cordifolia at all, but gives the date of introduction for E. glutinosa and various hybrids and their cultivars as c. 1937, however there is a USDA record of both the Chilean species being introduced directly from Chile in early 1920, courtesy of the US Consul C. F. Delchmann, who in the same consignment included material of Aextoxicon punctatum, Crinodendron hookerianum, Laurelia sempervirens, Maytenus boaria, Nothofagus dombeyi, N. obliqua, N. procera, Persea lingue and Tricondylus obliqua [Lomatia hirsuta] (USDA 1923).
The flowers, as is the case generally throughout the genus, are particularly attractive to bees and Ulmo honey has long been prized in Chile and used to be harvested from the wild. Now it is very common to find commercial hives in proximity to Ulmo forests and the honey is available for sale in various parts of the world (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).