May 03 2017

The Redwood of the South


When residents of the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada take a Patagonia vacation, they often feel surprisingly at home, because coastal Chile is, in many ways, a mirror image of their own home region.

To cover all possible comparisons would make this article ten times longer, but one feature that makes me feel at home – as a longtime California resident – is northern Patagonia’s forests of coniferous alerce trees. Standing in a grove of alerces is like being in a forest of California redwoods.

Like the redwood, the alerce is long-lived (up to 4,000 years), tall (up to 70 meters, though most top out around 40), and an attractive, easily worked, and water- and insect-resistant timber – many architectural landmarks in Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, the homeport for the Navimag ferry to southernmost Patagonia, consist of alerce timber harvested in the 19th century.

The redwood of the south flora and fauna in Patagonia Chile
Although it grows mostly between 400 and 700 meters above sea level, the alerce also thrives in poorly drained marshlands at lower altitudes. The nearest place to see them in this native habitat is at Monumento Natural Lahuén Ñadi, a relatively small protected just a few kilometers outside Puerto Montt, along the road to the airport.

For more extensive stands in the Andes, Parque Nacional Alerce Andino is about an hour east of the city, but the largest remaining forests are at Parque Pumalín, a private conservation project that requires a road trip and a ferry shuttle. There are also alerce forests on the Argentine side of the Andes here.

The branches of younger specimens touch the ground but, as the trees mature, their reddish-barked lower trunks are barren. The Mapuche Indians know it as the lawen, but Charles Darwin gave it the botanical name Fitzroya cupressoides after the famous commanding officer of the HMS Beagle. In The Voyage of the Beagle, though, Darwin provides only a cursory description of this imposing ecological treasure.

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