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Tree to 35 m, to 2 m dbh; habit often irregular and spreading. Bark dark grey, with horizontal bands of pale lenticels; cracking after about 10 years and developing jagged plates with rufous tints. Young shoots slender (1-2 mm thick), densely covered in short hairs. Leaves evergreen, leathery, 20–40 × 15–25 mm, rather narrowly rhomboidal (broadest less than halfway up) with an often uneven base and a long, acute tip; upper surface glabrous and glossy, lower surface with distinct venation, 4-6 secondary veins on each side of the midrib; margins irregularly and minutely but sharply serrate; petiole 2–7 mm long. Male flowers in closely knit groups of 3 and with a short peduncle; stamens 5-8. Female flowers in groups of 3-5; cupule sessile, 2-5 mm long, four-valved and covered with softly hairy lamellae. Nuts 3, winged. Rodríguez, R., Matthei, J.O. & Quezada, M. (1983); (Nothofagus (2007–2008).
Distribution Argentina Province of Chubut Chile In a restricted area from Valdivia south to southern Aisén, always near the coast.
Habitat Very wet temperate rainforests, from sea level to 1000 m asl, usually on west facing slopes.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Nothofagus nitida is one of four Nothofagus species endemic to Chile, though it has very recently also been recorded in Chubut Province, Argentina (Mathiasen et al. 2017). It grows in the Valdivian temperate rainforests in the south - often in sight of the famous conifer Fitzroya cupressoides - characterised by high precipitation, high humidity, and cool temperatures (Gardner, Hechenleitner V. & Hepp C. 2015). It is often seen alongside N. betuloides and N. dombeyi, and its appearance tends to be intermediate between these two species, which even in themselves are quite easily confused. Gardner, Hechenleitner V. & Hepp C. (2015) suggest it can be positively distinguished from both by its ‘shiny, rhomboid-shaped leaves which have well-defined veins’ but the reduced number of stamens (five to eight rather than eight to thirteen) may be the only absolute feature to separate it from N. dombeyi. N. betuloides has more oval, less sharply-toothed leaves, and its male flowers are usually carried singly. However, the very striking plum-coloured young spring growth does not occur in any other South American southern beech species and is therefore a reliable identification trait. The only confusion may arise if plants being cultivated are hybrid in origin between N. nitida and N. betuloides. Such spontaneous hybrids have been thought to occur in southern Chile where distributions of these two species overlap (Amigo, Ramirez & Quintanilla 2004).
Together with N. betuloides and N. dombeyi, this species is well adapted to ultra-high levels of rainfall which suggests that in cultivation it may prove to be drought-averse (Reyes-Diaz et al. 2005) but it has proven to be amply cold-tolerant in Scotland (Gardner, Hechenleitner V. & Hepp C. 2015). The species seems not to have been introduced to Europe until 1976-9 when the Forestry Commission added it to its UK trials (Bean 1976b). An original tree planted at the Royal Holloway College arboretum at Egham in Surrey in 1979 grew well and had reached 18 m × 48 cm dbh in 2000 (Tree Register 2020), but was standing dead in 2010: the sort of response to Surrey’s warm and often dry summers that could probably have been expected. All of the trees planted from the same source at Wakehurst Place, the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Alice Holt Lodge also seem to have failed (Tree Register 2020), despite these sites being in slightly wetter parts of south-eastern England; a trial plantation was established by the Forestry Commission in the Quantock Hills in Somerset (Clarke 1988) but there are no records of these trees surviving after 1985. Only the Tasmanian N. gunnii has a worse survival rate than this in England!
Western Scotland, by contrast, provides growing conditions which closely resemble those enjoyed by Nothofagus nitida in the wild. At the Forestry Commission’s Kilmun Arboretum in Argyll a 1979 planting had reached 16 m by 1994 (Tree Register 2020). The original labelling at Kilmun has mostly been lost, but it seems likely that N. nitida survives here in the form of two trees re-identified as N. betuloides on a new interpretation board in 2017 but with the overall appearance of N. dombeyi; the larger of these was 25 m × 68 cm dbh on its largest trunk in 2017 (Tree Register 2020), but was poorly formed with three boles from the base, one of which had already collapsed. Young plants raised from a recent introduction to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (BCCG 1010, collected from a tree growing only a few meters above sea level at Huinay, south of Puerto Montt in 2017) have recently been distributed to various collections where they ought to thrive, including Leckmelm and Benmore in Scotland, and also to Westonbirt and Glendurgan in England (T. Christian pers. comm. 2020). A slightly older collection from 1992 (Beavis 110), is represented by two trees at Logan Botanic Garden in south west Scotland; another grew in a town garden in Edinburgh and survived the bitterly cold winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 without the slightest injury, but it has since had to be removed as it outgrew the available space (T. Christian pers. comm. 2020).
Trees from other recent introductions may also be found in other areas of the UK, and have even been offered commercially by Burncoose nurseries. A specimen planted in 2001 by Nicholas Smith in his arboretum at Wynkcoombe Hill in West Sussex was a beautiful young tree 10 m tall in 2017 (Tree Register 2020), with brilliant green glistening foliage, but Wynkcoombe Hill is another site with light, dry soils and warm summers where this species’ chances of surviving in the longer term have to be assessed as poor. A younger tree at the Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight has leaves considerably longer than those typical of N. dombeyi in cultivation - in the wild they are described as usually slightly smaller. All of the known specimens grow in acidic soils, suggesting that this tree, like N. betuloides, may be more strictly calcifuge than most of the Nothofagus cultivated in our area. It is known for favouring very acidic soils in the wild (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015).
The delicate red-bronze flush of the young foliage through spring recalls that of the New Zealand N. menziesii and is one special reason to grow this species - as a short-term prospect in most of Britain but more reliably, perhaps, in the wettest places, and across the island of Ireland. It should also succeed in New Zealand, though may be too drought-sensitive for the north-western United States; it has probably not yet been introduced to these places. It is occasionally grown as an ornamental in southern Chile, but its ultimately large size limits its usefulness to parks and gardens large enough to accommodate it (Gardner, Hechenleitner V. & Hepp C. 2015).