The golden hues of Tasmania’s southern beech forests in autumn
Each autumn, usually around Anzac Day, streams of cars head to Mount Field National Park and Cradle Mountain. The drawcard is the ‘turning of the fagus’. That isn’t a strange Scottish festival down under, but the name for the spectacle of Tasmania’s only deciduous foliage tree, the southern beech (Nothofagus gunnii) or fagus, as it’s known locally, turning from green to glorious gold.
Nothofagus is a genus of Southern Hemisphere trees and shrubs that trace their lineage back to when the supercontinent known as Gondwana dominated the world. As this split into several parts, including those we now know as Australia, New Caledonia, New Guinea, New Zealand and South America, different species of Nothofagus clung to different regions.
There are three species of this genus that are native to Australia. They are Tasmania’s deciduous southern beech (N. gunnii), the evergreen myrtle beech (N. cunninghamii), which occurs naturally in Tasmania and Victoria, and the Antarctic beech (N. moorei), which grows along the east coast of Australia from south-east Queensland to the northern tablelands of New South Wales.
Native Nothofagus spp. resemble the Northern Hemisphere beech (Fagus spp.) for which the genus is named. ‘Notho’ means false and ‘fagus’ refers to the name of the European beech genus.
Southern beech grows in gardens in cool-climate zones with deep, fertile soil and regular watering. Trees take full sun or part shade but prefer altitudes above 300m. N. gunnii can be propagated either from fresh seed or cuttings. Take cuttings in winter while the trees are leafless.
As it is a small, slow-growing tree that reaches just 2–6m in height, N. gunnii is also suitable to grow in a large pot in a sheltered location. Its naturally gnarled and slow growth also makes it an ideal candidate for bonsai. Select a good quality acidic potting mix for pot-grown trees. Ensure the pots are well drained, but keep an eye on them to make sure the potting mix doesn’t dry out.