Shrub or tree to 3 m (rarely to 15 m); typically multistemmed. Shoots slender (c. 1 mm thick) with a short yellow pubescence. Leaves deciduous, somewhat leathery, distinctly folded with impressed, parallel lateral veins, 10-20 × 9-17 mm, ovate to orbicular, upper surface with scattered golden hairs particularly along the midrib, lower surface with golden hairs restricted to the veins and midrib, 4 - 6 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins crenate with usually one tooth in between the tip of each lateral vein, apex obtuse or emarginate; petiole 0-3 mm; stipules to 3 mm long, ± persistent. Leaves turn golden-yellow (rarely red or orange) before falling. Staminate flowers in groups of 1-3 and with recurved peduncles; stamens 6-12. Pistillate flowers in groups of 3; cupule 8 mm long, 4-valved and covered with recurved hook-like scales. Nuts 3, winged. Flowering October to February, fruiting March to May (Australia). (van Steenis 1953; Hewson 1989).
Distribution Australia Tasmania; absent from the east of the island.
Habitat Subalpine communities between 500 and 1300 m asl in very wet conditions on the western and central plateau mountains. On exposed sites it makes a wiry, tangled shrub and forms dense, impenetrable stands.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Near threatened (NT)
Nothofagus gunnii was probably included in New Trees under somewhat false pretences. It is notoriously difficult to grow in cultivation, but when the list of species to include was drawn up it was cultivated at Wakehurst Place. The propagation team there had succeeded in raising a single seedling from a collection made by David Hardman and Andy Jackson in Tasmania in 2000 (ETAZ 34). It had been planted out and had achieved a height of about 60 cm when someone dug or pulled it up, rather carelessly, damaging the roots and thus reducing even further its chances of survival. The thief clearly recognised its value and interest and is probably among those who read that book – a keen dendrologist. The theft was widely reported in the British press but as usual no suspect was ever traced.
In its native Tasmania, where it is the only native deciduous tree (Malahide 1971), it has an ‘outstanding’ presence (Elliot & Jones 1997), producing stunning autumn colours from appealingly contorted trees. The same authors say, however, that it is difficult to ‘tame in cultivation’; they prescribe a cool, sheltered, moist but freely draining site, and note that although it experiences harsh conditions in the wild, it does not tolerate long periods of cold weather in Europe or North America. In Australian conditions it can apparently be grown in pots of acidic medium, and even used for bonsai (Elliot & Jones 1997). Experiments should be made with mycorrhizal inoculation of seedlings.
Ken Gillanders (Gillanders 2008) reports that seed from cultivated N. gunnii in Tasmania can give hybrid offspring, but that the other parent(s) have yet to be identified.
Little can be added to the account which was published in New Trees in 2008; the tree stolen from Wakehurst Place has certainly not been encountered by Owen Johnson during any of his visits to private arboreta for the Tree Register, and there are no records of established plants in Europe or North America. Being confined to the coolest mountain tops in its natural range, the species is now evaluated as Near Threatened (Baldwin, Barstow & Rivers 2018); ten ex-situ collections are listed by Baldwin et al., though the one in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens was an unprepossessing 50 cm bush in 2010 (Tng 2010). Seed production in the natural stands is generally poor, but seed has been offered commercially by Ole Lantana’s Seed Store in Queensland (Lantana 2020).