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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Barking mad: Polylepis australis.


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?

23 comments:

jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

OOOOh, it's beautiful. And it wouldn't survive here. But it's beautiful anyway. LOVE that bark. Ninebarks (Physocarpus) also have cool peeling bark when they get some size to them, but not nearly as striking as this OR Acer griseum.

Amy said...

That is an unusual tree. I love the paper looking bark and those are great photos!

Carol said...

What a jewel to inherit!! Some cool people must have lived in your townhouse prior to it becoming your home. I guess you must be pretty special too RO ... to love it as you do. I can see why. Amazing tree... evergreen as well... that is another plus. From the pictures and your descriptions, it does seem other worldly and mystical. Thank you for the introduction... though I could never grow it here ( I assume) I am happier just knowing its exists! I smile to think of your birds tearing at the bark for nest material... look forward to seeing them in action here. Your photos are stunning! It is lovely to think of your encounter and knowing of this tree becoming the inspiration for you becoming more active in gardening and blogging! Maybe it recognized a kindred spirit in you and had some magical pull in getting you to buy the townhouse so you could become dear friends. ;>)

Carol said...

P.S. Great Title!! Thanks for the laugh!

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

What an interesting tree! I've never seen it before! Last fall, I posted about a Pacific Madrone that has a red peeling bark, but your tree has more layers of bark. Very unusual. Great photography!

Christine B. said...

It looks sensational...I don't suppose it would grow in zone 4?

Christine in Alaska

Lucy Corrander said...

So now we all want one!

The bark looks like a very expensive material of the crumpled variety.

Sounds as if the history of that bit of land and who has owned it and planted there before you may turn out to be as interesting as the tree.

Lucy

Edith Hope said...

Dear RO, This is absolutely fascinating. I have never come across this tree before. I wonder if they have a specimen at Kew? Clearly it needs space, which I imagine it has, to show it to advantage. As you comment, the leaves are to my mind as appealing as the bark - I think your photograph of them with droplets of dew is very attractive.

Liisa said...

RO,
A very beautiful tree, with such amazing papery ribbons of bark. I would love to see the birds hard at work, collecting its bark to build their nests. I am so intrigued by the thought of who lived there before you. Beautiful photographs.

miss m said...

Absolutely fantastic specimen. You're so lucky to have it !

Teza said...

Truly this is a magnificent tree. Here in Canada we tend to lean towards A. griseum, but if given the opportunity to grow this beauty.... there would be no contest! Your wonderful photographs attest to your love affair with this most handsome specimen. I covet you from afar!

Amanda said...

It is lovely. The bark looks to me as though it has been glued together as part of a school art project. A very big school art project!

Kiki said...

Truly Fascinating post! Fabulously magical shots!! Thanks for sharing..I am fascinated with trees...so this was indeed a massive treat!
Kiki~

Anna said...

What a treasure RO!

Esther Montgomery said...

I want to scrunch that bark - eat it, even, as one does a cynamon stick. (An over-rated challenge but one feels satisfyingly old fashioned when doing so, don't you think?)

Came over to check the mention on

http://esthersboringgardenblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/book-reviews-eastern-mysticism-life-on.html

is ok.

Let me know if not.

Esther

Gail said...

It's splendid looking! I love exfoliating bark and this tree has it going on! Thanks for the intro! gail

Aspidistra said...

Have you looked into propagating it up at Tumbledown? Sounds like you would have quite a market for it...

Noelle said...

I love trees that have interesting bark. The bark of this tree reminds me a little of a dark brown baklava, don't you think?

Kyna said...

What a neat tree! I haven't seen bark that 'peely' except on a birch. Awesome! :D

easygardener said...

It looks fascinating - like a badly wrapped parcel. Even better it attracts wildlife. I like a tree with character!

Jean said...

What an interesting tree but I just can't imagine how it ended up in a suburban backyard, given how special it is! No wonder you had a hard time finding out about it. Have you figured out how to propagate it yet? :-)

Bernie said...

I so enjoyed reading this post ... what a fantastic find! This tree reminds me a little of our paperbarks and also one of my favourite trees, our Cadaghi Gum. Trees have such fascinating forms and your photos certainly showed off this one beautifully.

Gloria Bonde said...

Lovely tree. Do squirrels eat or peel it? In our area any tree that has a bit of sweet sap in the spring gets munched on by squirrels.