Fagus - Tasmania's deciduous beech
Deciduous beech (Nothofagus gunnii), or fagus, as it is best known, is Australia's only cold climate winter-deciduous tree and is found nowhere else in the world except Tasmania. It has a magnificent autumn display.
Fagus is a small tree that grows to two metres or less and is found in cool, damp places, so it's often best seen in the remote highlands. Bushwalkers who have been caught up in its twisted, ground-hugging branches can testify to its other name - tanglefoot.
In autumn, its leaves change from rust red through to brilliant gold during late April and May. The actual time of fagus colouring varies from year to year and between locations so it's best to check with a tour operator or national park office.
When and where to see it
At Mt Field, drive towards the ski-fields up the Lake Dobson road. On the way you'll pass through a particularly rocky section where masses of boulders seem to pour down the steep slopes. Among these boulders are patches of fagus, some easily seen from your vehicle. For a closer look, park in the Lake Fenton carpark then head off towards the boulder field. Brilliant displays of deciduous beech can also be found higher in the park at Tarn Shelf.
In the north of the state, some of the best fagus is found around Cradle Mountain. The Loop Track around Dove Lake is an easy 2-hour walk that passes through some patches of fagus The even easier Weindorfers Forest Walk also offers easily accessible fagus, including trees that are much taller than the more usual stunted alpine form.
There is much yet to be learned about fagus, but one interesting recent find was an individual tree more than 350 years old.
Tasmania's Gondwana Heritage
Losing leaves in autumn is a response to long, dark winters. Deciduous trees are unable to photosynthesise at such times due to the lack of sunlight, so they shut down until spring. But as Gondwana split and Australia drifted northward on its own, its winters became lighter.
Other groups of plants, including eucalypts, started to dominate a drier, sunnier Australia. These more common Australian trees handle winter cold by other methods, such as developing the small, waxy leaves that are common in snow gums and other alpine plants.
Only in the remote, wet highland areas of Tasmania - where losing leaves is still a good defence against winter frosts and snow - has this rare southern beech survived to thrill visitors each autumn.