Flora & Fauna

Redwood Relatives South of the Equator

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Alerce. Photo by andrea ugarte, Flickr Creative Commons

The beautiful Alerce trees, Fitzroya cupressoides, grow in the cool rainforests of Chile, just to the west of the Andes. The Alerce are members of the same conifer family as the redwoods (the Cupressaceae) and the two species share many striking similarities.

As Ruskin mentioned, the Alerce live as far south of the equator as redwoods live north of the equator. Mature Alerce can reach heights of nearly 200 feet, grow trunks up to 16 feet in diameter, and live for more than 3,000 years. However, the Alerce giants were logged in the twentieth century and from the stumps left behind it is thought that many of the largest trees are gone. Noted for their timber value, many Alerce forests in Chile were heavily logged to extract Alerce wood for building materials, including roof shingles. One account notes that Alerce shingles placed on a roof more than 130 years ago are still perfectly intact, a testament to the amazing rot-resistance of the wood.

The Chilean government banned harvesting of Alerce trees and export of Alerce wood in 1976, but this legislation came too late to protect the magnificent species in many of the lowland areas of Chile, where it historically dominated the forests.  Unlike redwoods, Alerce are very slow-growing and restoration of harvested forests is extremely difficult. Today, the remaining Alerce giants can only be found standing at the base of the Andes. I’m ready to pay them a visit and see for myself how much they have in common with redwoods!

In 2012, Save the Redwoods League’s collaborated with Chilean conservationists to help create a sister national park to California’s Redwood National and State Parks. Learn more about other redwood relatives found throughout the world and visit their new webpage!

 

Reference: Farjon, A. 2005. A Monograph of Cupressaceae and Sciadopitys. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Sussex, England.

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