February 2018 Plant Profile: Prumnopitys andina

Prumnopitys andina superficially resembles a yew, which is part of the reason for its English common name, Chilean plum yew.  The other part is from the female cone resembling a small plum.

Prumnopitys andina

Leaves are between ¼ and 1 inches long and needle-like (though quite soft to the touch).  They are alternately arrangement around the branches.  They have a bluish green cast and feature two whitish stomatal bands on the undersides of the leaves.   Male cones appear in small spikes in mid-winter, and some are visible now.  Female cones are pale green, ripening to a purplish brown in March.    The bark is smooth and grey.

Prumnopitys andina

This is one of three Prumnopitys species native to the temperate regions (of nine in total) – the other two temperate species being the New Zealand endemics P. ferruginea and P. taxifolia.  It is considered “Vulnerable” to extinction in the most recent IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list, due to habitat fragmentation and isolation, over grazing and land conversion.  There has been an extensive ex-situ planting in Britain and Ireland of trees grown from collected seed from most Chilean subpopulations in an effort to conserve the genetic diversity of the species.

In North America, Chilean plum yew is very rarely grown.  It prefers areas of relatively high humidity, cool summers and winter rain.  It is cold hardy to USDA zone 8 (10-20 degrees F).  There are some trees being grown in botanic gardens in the coastal San Francisco bay area of California and in the southwest corner of British Columbia.   The original Heronswood Nursery offered trees in the early 2000s.

In the Arboretum our oldest specimens date from seed collected in Chile by former Arboretum research and program assistant Jan Pirzio-Biroli.  These were planted out to their current locations in 1996.  Cuttings were taken from these trees in 2007 and planted in the Chilean Entry Garden the next year.  Additional plants, grown from cuttings of the Heronswood introduction were planted in the Gateway to Chile project in 2010.

They are doing quite well in each location and seem to tolerate the wetter soils of the Gateway to Chile where few other trees have thrived.   Recently I was contacted by Martin Gardner of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scotland, who was curious as to our success with the trees and their history here.  While researching our records, I learned that we received one tree in 1946 from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, of which three (the others being cuttings) were planted out in 1962.  The last of these persisted into the early 1990s in the Pinetum.

Our two largest trees are now much more visible than they used to be.  They are both in prominent locations at either end of the new bridge for the Arboretum Loop Trail west of the Stone Cottage.  Here they are planted within the historic rockery that lines both sides of the seasonal stream that runs from the Broadmoor golf course southward along the east side of Arboretum Drive E.  They now receive more light and should continue to be attractive sentinels flanking the bridge for many decades to come.

Common name:  Chilean plum yew, Lleuque (in Chile)

Family:  Podocarpaceae

Location:  Eight plants, all located at the Washington Park Arboretum, from the Pacific Connections Garden southward.  There are 2 specimens in the Chilean Entry Garden at the southwest edge of the Pacific Connection meadow in grids 4-3E and 3-3E, and 4 specimens in the Gateway to Chile planting in 1S-3E and 1S-4E.  At the east side of Arboretum Drive E where the Arboretum Loop Trail meets the drive, there is one tree adjacent to the Drive near the northwest corner of the bridge and one at the southeast corner of the bridge.

Origin:  Prumnopitys andina is endemic to south-central Chile.  It was once thought to reach into western Argentina, but this was from herbarium specimens that in fact referred to a Chilean locality upon recent reexamination.   In that region it is superficially similar to the more common Saxegothaea conspicua and is sometimes mistaken for it.  Prumnopitys andina is generally restricted to valley bottoms close to larger rivers in the Chilean Andes.  Range is from 1,600 to 4,300 feet in elevation.

Height and spread:  In the wild, the Chilean plum yew can reach 100 feet high, but more often ranges between 45 to 60 feet tall.  In cultivation the trees are moderate growing and more typically 30-40 feet high.  However in Britain and Ireland some trees have reached nearly 100 feet, owing to their longer period of cultivation in those areas and suitable climate.  When young the tree has a somewhat irregular pyramidal habit.  It then matures into a more broadly pyramidal or rounded shape.  In great age and in open conditions it can be ¾ as wide as tall.   In the Arboretum, our largest tree is about 23 feet high and about 10 feet wide.

Hardiness:  Cold hardy to USDA Zone 8