Whenever I see an article discussing trees with interesting bark Acer griseum usually comes top of the list. I am not sure I have ever seen one that even so much as mentions Polylepis australis. Although I think it is sad that it does not have a more sexy reputation in the U.K. I am not at all surprised, as I have found it extremely difficult to find any examples of it here at all. To date I have noted one well established specimen at Marwood Hill Gardens a couple of years ago and one very dead example at the back of the gravel garden at Special Plants. The best example I have seen of it so far is in my Wiltshire back garden.
A few years ago when I first moved into my small Wiltshire townhouse I eagerly plodded around the garden quickly identifying all I had inherited, except for one thing. I knew at first sight that it was love. It was the most unusual, quirky and unkempt tree I had ever met. If a tree could be a character it is without doubt the Afghan hound from Frank Muir's What-a-mess books. But what the heck was it? "It has amazing bark," I thought to myself. "It can't be that hard to find out what it is." So off I went to look up trees with interesting peeling paper bark and all I could find was Acer griseum. My tree wasn't Acer griseum; it was Acer griseum on acid! My search went on for some time. I gave up trying to find similar trees through Google searches. Wafting pictures of it at friends and family provided no useful comments either. So in blind desperation I decided to ask Kew. Well I got as far as their website anyway. It was there that they recommended asking for help with identifications on the BBC gardening message boards. Until then I had never ventured onto a message board or investigated any online gardening communities. So I politely asked for help and posted a few pictures and after much humming and haring one wonderful lady came back with the answer: Polylepis australis. It all went down hill from there; I started chatting to other gardeners and excitedly running around taking pictures of everything to show them. Before I knew it I was hooked on gardening and had made some wonderful friends who shared their experience, seeds and plants with me. And then they went and encouraged me to start a blog...but enough of that let's get back to the tree!
Despite its name Polylepis australis does not come from Australia. It originates from the Andean forests of eastern South America. It holds the title of the woody plant capable of growing at higher altitudes than any other plant in the world. So quite what this little record breaker is doing in a suburban Wiltshire garden I have no idea! Even in South America these trees are considered special, as Polylepis is one of the most threatened trees in the Andean highlands.
The tree has deliciously rich cinnamon coloured, peeling paper bark. Birds absolutely adore it. Not only is it their favourite place to sit and chatter, but it also provides them with some rather snazzy nesting material. I was amazed to watch them all when spring came, busily flitting back and forth to collect pieces of the bark to line their nests. The tree produces tiny green flowers that are not very significant, however their abundant seeds are a real hit with the birds too.
The bark is not the only appealing feature of this tree for me. It has deliciously attractive evergreen foliage with very delicate, pinnate, blue-green leaves. This tree really does look like it has escaped out of some mystical setting (infact if I didn't know better I'd say it was an extra for the Lord of the Rings movies), especially first thing in the morning when it is covered in dew. Water droplets look like hundreds and thousands of tiny jewels on the leaves and never cease to amaze me with their beauty. So if you are looking for a tree with year round interest and unusual bark, and have a sheltered spot, why not be different and give Polylepis australis a try?