The Redwood of the South
Like California’s redwoods, the coniferous alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides) is long-lived (up to 4,000 years), tall (up to 70 meters, though most top out around 40), and makes an attractive, easily worked, water- and insect-resistant lumber. It’s more abundant on the Chilean side, where its native habitat ranges from coastal Valdivia south to archipelagic and continental Chiloé. In Argentina it’s found from Lago Nahuel Huapi south to Parque Nacional Los Alerces.
While it grows mostly between 400 and 700 meters above sea level, the alerce also thrives in poorly drained marshlands at lower altitudes. The branches of younger specimens touch the ground, but the reddish-barked lower trunks of mature trees are barren. The Mapuche know it as the lawen, but Charles Darwin gave the tree its botanical name, after the famous commanding officer of his equally famous vessel. Still, history’s greatest scientist offers just a few descriptive remarks in his The Voyage of the Beagle.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition