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Turning of the fagus

The locals call it the ‘turning of the fagus. It’s a colourful insight into our Gondwanan heritage.

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Turning of the Fagus

The locals call it the ‘turning of the fagus’. It’s a colourful insight into our Gondwanan heritage.

If you haven’t seen it, get your boots on - and don’t fumble over your laces, the fagus has arrived early this year. Haven’t heard of this deciduous beech? It also goes by the endearing names of Nothofagus gunnii or tanglefoot. Bushwalkers can vouch for tripping on the crawling, twisted branches of a tree that fights to reach two metres in height.

What it doesn’t have in stature it makes up for in late April and May by morphing into an autumnal beacon. Rich tones of rusty red through to glowing gold blanket the landscape. It does so in regions best described as inhospitable. What’s more, this little stunner is found nowhere else on the planet but Tassie. Let’s fill you in on the most accessible stands, dates and more.

A deciduous beech tree covering a rock

this little stunner is found nowhere else on the planet but Tassie.

A deciduous beech tree growing over a rock / Geoff Murray

When to go

Get out there at once – right now. Word in the bush is that the fagus is starting to turn. Typically it will blaze vibrantly for around a month, so don’t wait beyond mid-May.

Keep in mind that if you head for the highest altitude locales, such as the Tarn Shelf versus Lake Fenton, leaves might have fallen already. Lower altitude trees often hold onto their leaves a little longer. Give the national park a ring beforehand to check on the status.

Where to go

There’s less than 10,000 hectares of fagus growing across Tasmania. It might seem a lot but this is only a tiny portion of our wooded areas. Head for the highlands above 800 metres where rainfall is more than 1800mm.

Mt Field National Park and the northern end of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park are your best bets for getting up close. Fagus loves damp, cool places so be sure to wear your finest autumn-hued beanie and plenty of layers up in the highlands.

Cradle Mountain fagus

Crater Lake, Cradle Mountain

Crater Lake, Cradle Mountain / Jason Charles Hill

Cradle Mountain enjoys a flamboyant display of fagus with the classic peaks as your Insta backdrop

In northern Tassie, Cradle Mountain enjoys a flamboyant display of fagus with the classic peaks as your Insta backdrop. Take the Loop Track around Dove Lake and walk through stands of fagus on the two-hour sojourn. It’ll likely take longer if you’re walking with a camera.

Want an even easier option? Weindorfers Forest Walk is a petite-sized wander and just happens to boast taller trees than its higher-altitude counterparts. If you really want to get amongst it, spend a couple of hours walking to views over Crater Lake. Sheer slopes plummet into the lake, dressed in nature’s finest flaming orange, red and gold leaves.

Mount Field fagus

If you’re down south, Mt. Field even caters for the non-walker. Those who prefer the car heater blowing furiously should take Lake Dobson Road. Roll through the boulder section and you’ll see patches of fagus out the window. Those keen to breathe crisp mountain air should head for Lake Fenton. There’s an observation deck and the option to venture off to boulder fields from the Lake Fenton carpark. Want to really be blown away? Hold onto your beanie (actually, still days are common in autumn) and head for the Tarn Shelf. A colourful spectacle rewards those who spend the hours on foot. Think glacial lakes fringed by autumn confetti.

The backstory

The tale of the fagus dates back some 100 million years, when its ‘forebears’ first appeared here in Tasmania. That was when we were part of the supercontinent of Gondwana. Nothofagus became common in South America, New Zealand, Antarctica and Australia when Gondwana separated.

Southern beeches worldwide

There are around 35 species of southern beeches dotted around the world – nine in South America, 18 in New Guinea, New Britain and New Caledonia, three here in Australia and four in New Zealand. There’s also the Antarctic beech and although the southern continent is now covered in ice, fossils show that trees stood proudly, once upon a time. The living descendants, Tassie’s colourful fagus, is one of the oldest lineages of flowering plants.

Why the pretty leaves?

Fagus is Australia’s only cold climate winter-deciduous tree. Seasonal losing of leaves (deciduousness) comes down to plant chemistry and Tassie’s weather. A quick science lesson reveals that during warmer months, chlorophyll in the leaves assists with the conversion of sunlight into sugar. It’s also responsible for keeping the leaves green. As the days get shorter, chlorophyll breaks down and is superseded by anthocyanin. Still following? It’s this pigment that gives autumn leaves their splendid colours. When the leaves eventually fall, they deliver precious minerals to the soil that feed the following spring growth. Bravo nature. So, not only does this tree present a ‘pretty face’ to snap, it plays an important scientific role. It holds the key to understanding how vegetation has evolved in the Southern Hemisphere.

A close up photo of Fagus

Fagus close up / Kelly Slater

Fagus is Australia’s only cold climate winter-deciduous tree.

The fagus future

If fagus had an enemy, it would be fire. It is very slow to regenerate and quite often does not recover when fires passes through, unlike other Australian plants. Take a peek at densely covered kunanyi / Mount Wellington, watching over our capital. It’s difficult to believe its slopes were nearly bare of Eucalypt forest following the 1967 fires. In contrast, fagus has very thin bark, meaning adult trees are quickly decimated by flames. Sometimes it takes 1000 years to recover.

While fagus is not a fan of fire, it does fancy land disturbance. Around seven years after land has been disturbed by human or natural forces, seedlings sprout. Across the Andes Mountains in Chile where earthquakes and landslips are common, species of Nothofagus are prolific.

Catch the colourful fagus in its full glory from late April to May.