The Last Deciduous Tree in Tasmania

Introducing a tree that needs little introduction – Tasmania’s one and only native deciduous (meaning it drops its leaves in winter) tree species, the inimitable Nothofagus gunnii, the Deciduous Beech, the Tanglefoot. There are those too, who simply call it the Fagus.

The Deciduous Beech is a small tree from the beech family (Fagaceae). It reaches little more than 2 metres at the slightly lower altitudes but practically sprawls over boulders in the alpine zones. It is a mere dwarf compared to its much more widespread relative, the Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii).

A wild Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree (Photo by David Tng)

A wild Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree (Photo by David Tng)

The legacy of the Deciduous Beech, however, predates that of the Myrtle Beech. Fossils very similar to that of the modern day Deciduous Beech have been found in Antarctica, suggests that very similar species were in Antarctica before Australia separated from that now snowed out landmass.  The deciduous nature of N. gunnii also leads one to think that the habit of dropping leaves in winter might have been a much more common feature of the Tasmanian tree flora in times past.

Leaf detail of Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree (Photo by David Tng)

Leaf detail of Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree species (Photo by David Tng)

Alas, this is not really the easiest plant to visit, being a higher-altitude plant. The Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens (RTBG) has at least one specimen, but it is a small one hardly more than 50cm tall, and it is largely obscured by other plants.

Obscured! That’s ironic, particularly given that an illustration of the Deciduous Beech graces the signboard at the entrance of the RTBG. Still, that is one of the closest places to civilization that one may visit this icon.

A bonsai Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree (Photo by David Tng)

A bonsai Nothofagus gunnii, the last Tasmanian deciduous tree (Photo by David Tng)

Most understandably, the Deciduous Beech must be one of the most difficult-to-cultivate of Tasmania’s iconic plants. It takes a long time to grow, if it even survives. Still, once it harmonizes with a sincere plants-person, the Deciduous Beech will make a most exquisite bonsai plant.

Nothofagus gunnii in its native habitat (Photo by David Tng)

Nothofagus gunnii in its native habitat (Photo by David Tng)

But the connoisseur will seek the Deciduous Beech in its highest abode, in the  dolerite landscape of Mount Field National Park. The true seeker must travel to the mountains to the west, during April of the Southern Hemisphere autumn. They must drive west bound, up windy beaten roads, through the grand forest of the Mountain Ash. And where the road ends at Dobson Lake, they must traverse boulder and tarn by foot alone, beyond where the highland gums surrenders to frost and exposure. Then, and only then, does the sincere seeker arrive at the Tarn shelf, a true mecca of nival endemicity, where the Deciduous Beech basks upon the alpine boulders in its most exposed, most brazen magnificence.

And then one may say that one has witnessed the leaf fall of the last of Tasmania’s deciduous tree species, the yellow of the autumn Nothofagus gunnii.