Species Profile: Southern Beech
By Nicole Gautier (University of Oregon ’11)
Southern beeches, genus Nothofagus, are found throughout the southern hemisphere, with ten species existent in Chile. Three are commonly found in the Aysen region, and are present at the future Patagonia National Park. The Spanish common names are coigue/coihue, nirre, and lenga, for N. dombeyi, N. antarctica, and N. pumilio, respectively. Nirre can be generalized as a riparian tree, lenga as a mountain tree, and coihue as coastal, although all have a range from Patagonia steppe to timberline. Lenga is the dominant species of the Patagonian Andes, growing up to 100 feet tall, but also found in a dwarf form (“pumilio” means dwarf). Lenga and coihue have both been recognized for having value as timber, lenga traditionally for housing and furniture, coihue for heavier construction. Nirre thrives far south, in the cold and wet extremes of Tierra del Fuego. Coihue maintains its leaves year round, while lenga and nirre are deciduous and recognized for brilliant fall coloration. General tree shape is a good way to distinguish between species – lenga trees tend to form a more regular pyramid, nirre are often shrubbier and contorted, and nirre appear more terraced.
Southern beeches are long lived, with some coihue dated up to 1000 years old. Unfortunately, Chilean temperate rainforests are diminishing, with many areas still in recovery mode after burning was encouraged as a method of settlement and claim staking in turn-of-the-century southern Chile. Fortunately southern beeches are tenacious, preferring to regenerate in disturbed sites, so hopefully these iconic trees of the region will stay on the map.