In the cool, damp depths of the Valdivian forest of the Patagonian lake land of Chile and Argentina lives one of the world’s most characteristic and charismatic trees, writes Dr John Jackson.

The common names for L. apiculata include the Chilean Myrtle, the temu tree or the arrayán – which I prefer as the local Mapuche Indian tag. The generic designation derives from this tongue too.

This tree is native to the lower levels of the central Andes between Chile and Argentina, at 33 to 45 degrees south latitude. The climate is cool and wet all year but the scenery is spectacular with the backdrop of lakes, forests and mountains.

In the wild, Luma apiculata is a small tree with evergreen foliage, typically reaching 10–20 metres tall and up to 1-metre trunk DBH, which is twisted/contorted, multiple and with an extraordinary tangle of largish branches. They have aromatic, glossy, dark green leaves and clusters of cup-shaped, white flowers quite late from mid summer into mid autumn, followed by round, purple fruit. These appear by the end of the austral summer and are present until autumn. Maybe not the tastiest or sweetest berries, they are made locally into jams – a rich source of vitamin C for the long winter.

The shiny aromatic leaves are traditionally used as a smudging incense during Mapuche rituals. They are holy trees to the native peoples.

Forestry Journal: Specimen arrayán.Specimen arrayán.

But it is the colour and feel of the trunks and branches that have the greatest allure and capture the imagination – an orangey or cinnamon with white stripes where the outer bark has stripped off. And when you put your hand on the trunks, or give them a hug, they feel eerily cold and strange to the touch as the bark is so thin.

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This small tree normally grows as a bushy understorey, hugging fast-running rivers’ banks or lake shores under a protective canopy of Nothofagus woodland which offers a more stable microclimate year-long as the winters can be long and severe higher up the Andean foothills.

Forestry Journal: Trunk of Luma apiculata.Trunk of Luma apiculata.


Luma apiculata hit the botanic scene in the northern hemisphere from 1843–44 onwards, when the famous plant hunter William Lobb sent seeds back to England. Employed by Veitch Nurseries of Exeter, Lobb was also responsible for introducing Araucaria araucana (the monkey puzzle tree) from Chile to commercial growers in Britain.

With its combination of mottled orange outer bark, and patches of bluish-white younger bark as it peels away, contrasting with glossy dark evergreen foliage and sprays of white flowers, the arrayán offers something of interest year-long. Available from a range of nurseries and garden centres nowadays, this decorative plant holds an RHS Award of Garden Merit and is a popular bonsai subject too.

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The arrayán has become naturalised in parts of Ireland and western Great Britain, planted in Spain and is suspected to be establishing itself in the wild in New Zealand.

Although this tree is often grown in larger gardens in the British Isles in ones and twos, especially on the Atlantic coast, to admire and enjoy a stand of mature specimens in their full glory you must travel to its native home where, at a few special sites, it forms the dominant woodland.

Perhaps the most celebrated of those is in Argentina, in Los Arrayanes National Park on the western shores of the deep, cold, glacial Lago Nahuel Huapí.

Forestry Journal: Walking through Los Arrayanes.Walking through Los Arrayanes.


Located on the Quetrihué Peninsula, this National Park was declared in 1971 to protect its forest of rare arrayán trees. Trees in this area grow very slowly in a challenging climate, reaching heights up to 12 metres, and can be up to 600 years old.

To protect the soil and the roots of these fragile trees, a wooden walkway invites tourists to enjoy the view of a tunnel of the cinnamon-coloured trees with their tangle of twisted branches without compacting the earth, trampling the roots or tearing bits off as souvenirs.

At 17.5 sq km, the park is tiny by Argentine standards, dwarfed by the giant neighbouring Nahuel Huapí – at a mere 7,050 sq km – and others in the still expanding chain of 35 such protected federal gems across the country.

Some 250 km further south, it can be also found in lesser numbers along the Rio Arrayanes in Los Alerces National Park, not that far from the Welsh colony of Trevelin.

It is a tourist hotspot and a must-see, visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year. The bulk of the visitors from across the globe arrive by catamaran from the tourist hub of San Carlos de Bariloche across the lake.

The discerning visitors wander off to enjoy this natural spectacle of tangled branches from the raised walkway and away from the throng whereas most have a quick look around, take a few shots and then make a beeline for the inevitable and tempting log cabin café serving great hot chocolate.

Forestry Journal: Entrance to Los Arrayanes National Park, Argentina.Entrance to Los Arrayanes National Park, Argentina.


According to tourist guides and local legend, it was a visit to this wonderland in the late 1930s that inspired Walt Disney for the scenography of the film Bambi. Not strictly true – but not beyond the bounds of imagination. Although he probably did visit the wood later.

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Yet, from personal experience, when there are few people around and the sun is low in the sky, this wood is indeed magical and glows. Stand there alone for a while and let yourself drift away; the mind begins to wander and the imagination takes over. You could be transported to a far-away fantasy world.

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