Natural wonders

Chile’s top 5 native trees

In a land of extreme landscapes and diversity, Chilean forests are home to some of the world’s oldest, tallest, and most exceptional tree species.

Friday, July 08, 2011  
Anyone who’s never seen the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.” (Photo: clancy_brett/Flickr) Anyone who’s never seen the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.” (Photo: clancy_brett/Flickr)

As Pablo Neruda famously wrote, “Anyone who’s never seen the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.” Chile is home to the second largest temperate rainforest in the world, and the most biologically diverse, as well as some distinctive local trees found only in small pockets of the country’s unique ecosystem.

According to a 2011 report by Chile’s forestry service, Conaf, about 18 percent of the country is covered by native forest, and another 4 percent is forested with non-native trees like the eucalyptus and Douglas fir, although the figure is expected to increase in the coming years.  

This Is Chile highlights five of the most stunning native trees, including one almost-extinct tree native to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, which is making a comeback thanks to concerted conservation efforts.

Araucaria (Araucaria araucana)
The araucaria is the distinctive symbol of the similarly-named Araucanía (Region IX) of southern Chile: a towering trunk with a cluster of loopy branches at the top. The conifer is extremely slow-growing, but can reach heights of 150 feet (45 m) and live for up to 1,000 years in extreme conditions in the Andes. Several indigenous groups, most notably the Mapuche and Pehuenche, gather the nutty seeds known as piñones to use in traditional dishes. The tree’s indigenous name is pehuén, and it is sometimes known to English-speakers as the monkey-puzzle tree.

Alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides)
The alerce is one of the world’s oldest trees, often living for more than 4,000 years and growing up to 165 feet tall (50 m). In recent years, the trees have been the star of an international conservation campaign in response to illegal logging, due to the wood’s popularity in construction and woodworking. You can visit an old growth stand of alerces in the Alerce Andino national park outside Puerto Montt, an often-overlooked gem that makes a perfect day-trip for travelers on their way to Patagonia.

Chilean Palm (Jubaea chilensis)
The Chilean palm’s native range extended from La Serena (Region IV) to Talca (Region VII), but the palm can be found as far south as the Araucanía (Region IX) and it has become a popular decorative plant farther north. The Chilean palm is believed to be the longest-living palm in the world, as well as one of the tallest, reaching heights of nearly 90 feet (25 m). The distinctive smooth trunk holds the secret to the sweet Chilean treat, miel de palma, or palm honey, although over-harvesting of the palm’s sap has led to deforestation.   

Canelo (Drimys winteri)
A beautiful hardwood found in central Chilean forests, the canelo, whose bark, leaves and roots have medicinal properties, is sacred to Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche. Thanks to these properties, canelo are often planted outside many of the Araucanía region’s rukas, a distinctive Mapuche building used for social and religious gatherings. Most supermarkets in the country sell agüita de canelo, an herbal tea which helps settle the stomach.

Toromiro (Sophoro toromiro)
The toromiro escaped extinction on Rapa Nui, but just barely. When Captain James Cook landed on the isolated island in the 1700s, a sailor described the island as covered by the short, flowering tree. 200 years and thousands of sheep later, the toromiro was officially declared extinct on the island. After various failed reforestation efforts, a recent campaign to plant 80 seeds as well as distribute 300 seeds among local residents has been undertaken by Conaf and local group Mata Ki Te Rangi (Eyes to the Sky).