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Martin Gardner, Tom Christian & Dan Luscombe (2022)
Gardner, M.F., Christian, T. & Luscombe, D. (2022), 'Prumnopitys andina' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.
Editorial Note: this article is an abridged version, with minor amendments, of an in-depth account of Prumnopitys andina which appeared in the 2017 Yearbook of the International Dendrology Society, referenced below as ‘Gardner, Christian & Luscombe 2018’. The full article is available to view and download here.
Evergreen tree 10–20 m tall, crown broadly pyramidal or rounded, dioecious (rarely monoecious). Usually multi-stemmed, 0.5–1 m dbh, bark smooth, grey. Branches forming whorls. Leaves 1–2.5 × 0.15–0.2 cm, simple, alternate, almost stalkless, linear or slightly sickle-shaped, with an abruptly projecting point. Pollen cones borne in spikes of up to 25, each subtended by a leaf-like linear-lance-shaped bract, November-December. Female-cones grouped along a scaly shoot, 1–3 × 2–3 cm, globose, green ripening yellow, January to March. (Gardner, Christian & Luscombe 2018).
Distribution Chile In well defined but scattered populations, mainly in the Andes in the mediterranean climatic zone from Region VII (Province Linares, 35º 52’) to Region IX (Province Malleco, 39º 30’S)
Habitat Riparian forests in valleys where the climate is characterised by moderate rainfall (2000–3000 mm per annum) and hot, dry summers. The soils are predominantly derived from volcanic materials and are very well drained. Common associates include Aextoixcon punctatum, Austrocedrus chilensis, Gevuina avellana, Laurelia semperivirens, Maytenus boaria, Nothofagus obliqua and Quillaja saponaria.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Vulnerable (VU)
Prumnopitys andina was first described in 1847 by the German botanist and zoologist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig (1798–1868) as Podocarpus andinus. Fourteen years later, in 1861, Rudolph Amandus Philippi (1808–1904), the father of Chilean botany, described what he thought to be a different species and named it Prumnopitys elegans, alas this turned out to be the same species. P. andina is endemic to Chile where it is known by the common names of ‘Lleuque’ or ‘Uva de Cordillera’, the latter meaning grape of the mountains on account of its sweet-tasting, grape-like cones. Its English common name, Chilean Plum Yew, relates to its foliage superficially resembling that of the common European yew, Taxus baccata, and its female cones resembling those of the true plum-yews, Cephalotaxus. Indeed, to the less aware, P. andina is often confused in cultivation with Taxus baccata and the foliage is sometimes confused with Saxegothaea conspicua even in Chile, where both are native. In recent years, numerous plants distributed by nurseries in the UK and Ireland labelled Saxegothaea have proved to be Prumnopitys andina (pers. obs. TC).
The precise date of introduction to cultivation outside of Chile and by whom is not known. The earliest reference we can find to it in cultivation is 1857 when Hugh Low & Co., Clapton Nursery in London were offering plants for 15 shillings each or 12 for 120 shillings. The very cold winter of 1859–1860 was a good test for the relative hardiness of new introductions to cultivation and prompted gardens to comment on their trees of P. andina (Gardner, Christian & Luscombe 2018). P. andina was proving to be relatively hardy, but these early reports are also an indication of its date of introduction to cultivation, which was likely to have been no later than the mid-1850s. Plants were also being offered for sale by William Reid Nurseries, New York in 1861 for $1 each (Reid 1861). An early documented introduction to cultivation in the British Isles was made in 1860 by the highly accomplished Victorian plant explorer Richard Pearce, working for Veitch & Sons (Veitch 1881). This is often mistaken as the original date of introduction.
By the turn of the 19th century P. andina was relatively widely cultivated in Britain and Ireland, and to a very limited extent in mainland Europe (Hansen 1892). The Conifer Conference Report of 1932 (Chittenden 1932) detailed 21 gardens in Britain and Ireland growing P. andina (under the name Prumnopitys elegans) including a tree at Kilmacurragh, Ireland, listed as being 12.5 m, the largest known at that time. Curiously, in the 1972 publication Conifers in the British Isles Mitchell (1972) P. andina was scarcely mentioned, even for those gardens which were mentioned as having trees (some notable) in the 1932 report by Chittenden – many of these still exist today.
Of the c. 50 notable, extant trees cultivated in the UK and Ireland (Tree Register 2017), some of the largest were most likely planted in the late 19th century, and not surprisingly no field data is available for these. Several of the largest grow in Ireland, including the largest at Birr Castle, 19 m tall in 2013, and examples of 17 m at Howth Castle and Glasnevin. England has many large trees, but not all are associated with private estates and gardens. For example, the Parish Churches of Midhurst (West Sussex) and Thursley (Surrey) both have notable trees. Not far from Midhurst there are two closely planted trees on the side of the road leading to Cowdray Hall. At 17 m tall the latter are very impressive and join trees at Bedgebury National Pinetum and Fletcher’s Moss in being among the tallest examples in England (Gardner, Christian & Luscombe 2018).
In their survey of conifers in cultivation, Shaw & Herd (2014) list 70 sites cultivating P. andina, however, most of these relate to plants in the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) network of ‘safe sites’ in the UK and Ireland which have been planted since 1992. Today the network has c. 500 plants of P. andina in 80 sites planted throughout the UK and Ireland. If RBG Edinburgh’s four gardens are included in the count then this figure increases to c. 650 plants. The purpose of this network is to help broaden the genetic base of conifers such as P. andina in cultivation, in the hope that this material can one day be used to help restore depleted native populations. Unlike the heritage trees of P. andina in cultivation, the ICCP trees are documented with precise provenance data. Seed collections have been made from all known populations in Chile, including two that were discovered in the Central Depression (Region IX) in 2005 and 2017 by teams from RBG Edinburgh and the Universidad de Austral Valdivia. These are significant discoveries because they represent the only populations in Chile’s Central Depression which lies between the Andes and the Coastal Cordillera. The relatively small group of trees at the entrance to Parque Nacional Conguillio are likely to be cultivated and may have originated from the natural population on the forested slopes leading down to Laguna Verde inside the National Park. Again this is significant because this readily accessible location is frequently the source of cultivated plants today.
Some of the most significant plantings traceable to the ICCP distributions are those at Bedgebury National Pinetum (Kent) and at Kilmun Arboretum (Argyll and Bute) which both number several dozen individuals; most plantings comprise just a few plants. This species has been successfully used as a hedging plant for some time, but in recent years many new P. andina ‘conservation hedges’ have been planted using known-origin plants distributed by the ICCP (Gardner et al. 2018). Examples of these conservation hedges may be seen at RBG Edinburgh, Harcourt Arboretum and Mount Stewart.
Compared with the UK and Ireland, P. andina is rarely cultivated elsewhere. In 2017 the BGCI plant collections database lists 27 sites in eight countries, and very few of these are large examples. Frédéric Tournay notes that for France ‘It is very rare but the species is certainly under recorded in public gardens because people often mistake it for Taxus’ (F. Tournay pers. comm. 2017). This scenario is likely the case in many other western European nations where the species has a limited presence in cultivation, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. It is also cultivated in western North America, from San Francisco north to Vancouver, and in New Zealand and Australia, where a tree has reached 20 m at Geelong Botanic Gardens (Victoria). Gardner, Christian & Luscombe (2018) give a detailed breakdown of known, notable trees around the world.
P. andina is rarely grown in its native Chile. Mauricio Cano knows of two 6 m trees in the main square of La Unión (Region Los Lagos) which produce copious amounts of female cones each year (M. Cano pers. comm. 2017). Likewise in the small town of Cunco (Region Araucanía) there are several trees in the main square (pers. obs. MFG). Antonio Lara reports it being used as a street tree in the town of Villarrica (Region Araucanía) and according to Paulina Hechenleitner there are several street trees in Frutillar Bajo (Region Los Lagos) (A. Lara and P. Hechenleitner V. pers. comms. 2017). Although the wood of P. andina, which is yellowish in colour, is used for making furniture and in construction, it is not as sought after as other timber trees that are native to the Chilean temperate rainforests. The sweet-tasting fleshy cones are consumed by local people and are sometimes used for making marmalade.
The ICCP’s extensive experience cultivating P. andina over the past c. 30 years has not always been straightforward. Propagation from seed is apparently affected by complicated dormancy and other germination inhibitors. Removing the fleshy epimatium (seed coat) from female cones as soon as possible seems to be beneficial, and various other experimental treatments have been shown to increase success: a thorough appraisal of these is given by Gardner, Christian & Luscombe (2018). Once successful germination is achieved growing young plants on in nursery conditions is straightforward, but the establishment of this species in cultivation has often been challenging. It is estimated that the mortality rate of trees planted in ICCP sites over a period of 25 years is about 50%. It is clear that poor health (in the form of yellowing leaves) and mortality is related to poorly drained sites, but this has also occurred in sites that have not previously been planted with P. andina. The latter problem led to the hypothesis that the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, that play such a key role in the health of conifers, is either absent or unavailable in some sites. Research carried out to better understand the associated beneficial mycorrhizal fungi concluded that P. andina is a difficult host for Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi and therefore plants struggle to form a symbiotic relationship (known as mutualistic symbiosis). This was especially so in the organic-rich and mineral-rich clayey loam soils of Britain (Melchizedek 2015). P. andina can be easily vegetatively propagated by taking 5 cm long, semi–ripe heel cuttings in autumn and applying a rooting hormone. Placed under mist or a plastic cover with a bottom heat of 18 °C, rooting takes two to three months and 100% success rate can be expected (Gardner et al. 2006).
Like most conifers species P. andina is adverse to waterlogged soils, however it will survive seasonal inundation as long as the soil is freely drained. Other than water-logged soils, P. andina has a broad tolerance of climates and edaphic conditions. Not only does it grow on acid soils but it will also thrive on alkaline substrates, including thin chalky soils. The best evidence of the latter is the thriving 17 m tall tree at Stanmer Park in East Sussex. It can also tolerate cold temperatures so long as plants do not dry out. Although P. andina is generally free of pests, according to Melchizedek (2015) it is seriously affected by a range of ill-health conditions and symptoms. In particular a carbohydrate slime disease is present on many of the older trees in cultivation, and similar symptoms have been observed on wild trees in Chile’s Central Depression.