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Fitzroya cupressoides

Fitzroya cupressoides - Patagonian cypress, Alerce
  • Fitzroya cupressoides - Patagonian cypress, Alerce - Click to enlarge
  • Fitzroya cupressoides branches - Click to enlarge
  • Fitzroya cupressoides leaves - Click to enlarge


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Product Information


Scientific name: Fitzroya cupressoides  (G.Molina)  I.M. Johnston  1924

Synonyms: Cupresstellata patagonica (Hook.f. ex Lindl.) J.Nelson, Fitzroya patagonica Hook.f. ex Lindl., Libocedrus cupressoides (Molina) Kuntze, Pinus cupressoides Molina

Common names: Patagonian cypress (English), Alerce (Spanish)



Trees to 50(-60) m tall, evergreen, dioecious, rarely monoecious. Trunk monopodial, straight, buttressed in old individuals and often with root suckers, to 3-5 m diam, above buttress. Bark on trunk thick, with deep fissures, exfoliating in long strips, reddish brown. Branches spreading horizontally or curved down, forming a conical or pyramidal crown. Foliage branches spreading or pendulous, ultimate branchlets 1-4 cm long, more or less terete, densely covered with leaves, persistent. Leaves scale-like, in alternate near-whorls of 3, imbricate, decurrent, with distal part variously (re)curved. Apex incurved but free, lanceolate to ovate, 4-6 mm long on younger trees, 2-3 mm long on older trees, 1-2 mm wide, keeled abaxially, adaxially with a midrib. Margins entire, apex obtuse, stomata abaxially in a few lines on decurrent base, leaf colour lustrous green to glaucous green, with whitish wax on stomatal zones. Pollen cones predominantly terminal, solitary, cylindrical, 6-8 × 2-3 mm, microsporophylls 15-24, in alternate whorls of 3, imbricate, peltate-ovate with acute apex, keeled abaxially, margins entire, bearing (2-)4-6 small pollen sacs on abaxial side. Seed cones terminal or subterminal, formed by 2-3 whorls of slightly modified scale leaves, followed by 2 alternate whorls of 3 fertile scales, maturing in 1 season to cones with wide spreading scales 10-14 mm diam. Bract-scale complexes thin woody, obovoid-spathulate, largest one ca. 5 × 4 mm, with thickened, wrinkled apical part and subapical, curved umbo of exserting bract apex 1-2 mm long. Columella variably shaped, trigonal to tripartite, ca. 4 mm long, flattened, not woody, resinous-glandular, more or less translucent. Seeds usually only well developed on upper fertile whorl, 3-4 × 2 mm, ovoid-oblong, flattened, with a concave hilum, wings usually 2, sometimes 3, crescent-shaped with undulate margins, ca. 2 mm wide.

The species name honors British Vice-Admiral Robert Fitz Roy (1805 - 1865), who was captain of the Beagle during its second voyage around the world (1831 - 1836), with a chief goal of to mapping the coast and waters of southern America, where the tree was an important and conspicuous forest component. This expedition, of course, is much better known for the inspiration it gave to the ship’s naturalist, Charles Darwin, then in his 20s.

Southern Andes and Coast Ranges of Chile and adjacent Argentina. Forming solid stands on moist to waterlogged soils or mixed with other temperature conifers and southern beech (Nothofagus); (0-)100-1,500 m.


Conservation Status

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered

Although the estimated 42% past reduction in its area of occupancy does not meet the 50% threshold for A2 under Endangered, there has been an estimated reduction in the quality of habitat across its total range of more than 50% during the last three generations, which is suspected to equate to a population reduction of 50% over that time period. In Chile, where most of the population occurs, this is very evident in the Coastal Cordillera where most of the Alerce forests comprise secondary forest that is the result of fire, logging and damage to trees from bark stripping for caulking purposes. The majority of the Andean forests been impacted in similar ways. The decline in habitat quality is ongoing as illegal logging continues and deliberately set fires re-occur.

In both Chile and Argentina it has a discontinuous distribution in the Coastal Cordillera (Chile), the Central Valley (Chile) and the Andes (Chile and Argentina) with an altitudinal range of 1-1500 m. Patterns of intraspecific variation in Fitzroya have been studied with different molecular markers (isozymes and RAPDs) along the range of the species in Chile and Argentina. Populations located on eastern and western slopes of the Andes are genetically distinct with eastern populations carrying higher levels of genetic variation than western ones.

Fitzroya usually grows on poorly drained young soils derived from volcanic ash. At low and middle elevations, it occurs on poorly drained sandy soils, rich in organic matter, low pH and high C/N rate. At higher altitude (800- 1200 m.) it grows on insipid soils, also derived from volcanic ash, but sandy well drained and infertile. These areas receive between 2,000 to 4,000 mm precipitation per annum. Throughout its range Fitzroya grows in a range of forest types. For instance in Chile, at elevations greater than 800 m it is often associated with Nothofagus betuloides, while at mid-elevations of from 500-800 m it grows with Nothofagus nitida, Pilgerodendron uviferum, Podocarpus nubigenus and Tepualia stipularis. At low elevations of between 40 and 500 m Fitzroya is uncommon and typically it grows as a large tree in the Valdivian rainforest with Amomyrtus luma, Drimys winteri, Laureliopsis philippiana, Saxegothaea conspicua and Weinmannia trichosperma.

This is a very long-lived, slow growing tree with records of it living to more than 3,600 years old. It is dioecious species or ocasionally monoecius. Inter-annual seed production is highly variable, with 5-7 years periods of low to no production and viability is also usually low. In the Chilean Andes most Fitzroya-dominated forests have originated following large-scale disturbance such as volcanic ash depositions, lava flows and landlslides. It can resprout from roots or low branches.

For more than three centuries Alerce has suffered from over-exploitation due to its highly prized wood; human-set fires and conversion of forest to pasture land has significantly reduced its range and left extensive deforested or degraded areas.  In Argentina 60% of the subpopulations shows signs of anthropogenic disturbances linked with cattle ranching and browsing, however, the present-day situation is that the remaining forest are in a relatively good conservation state. In Argentina, since the 1980s, there has been little illegal exploitation of Fitzroya. Destruction in Chile's Central Depression has been extensive and until 1987, the tree was believed to have been completely eliminated from this area. During the summer of 1997-1998, human-set fires destroyed 9,777 ha in Chile's Coastal Cordillera. Fires in Alerce forests represented 34% of all forest fires in the provinces of Valdivia and Llanquihue in the 1997-98 summer. Throughout its range there has been a 42% loss of the original cover from 617,000 ha to 265,000 ha (Lara 2008), but the decline in habitat quality is far greater (exceeding 50%): evidence for this can be found in the large areas of existing forest with a high percentage of burnt trees in the Coastal Cordillera and the many Andean sites which show poor regeneration and growth and also have a history of selective logging and fire.

Despite national and international legal protection, particularly in Chile its timber has continued to be exploited and this is reflected in the fact that during 1977-1996 the exports of Alerce timber reached an average of US $865,000. Logging permits are issued for timber declared to originate from trees that died prior to 1976 when Alerce was declared a National Monument and the cutting of live trees prohibited. Determining the date of death can be problematic and there have been many instances of fires being deliberately set in forests in the Chilean Andes and Coastal ranges in order to produce more dead timber for harvesting.

In 1973 Fitzroya was included under Appendix I of CITES. In 1976, it was declared a National Monument and the exploitation of live trees was prohibited. In 1979 it was included as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the United States, forbidding its import to that country.

In Chile, 47,400 ha (17%) out of a total of 264,993 ha of Fitzroya forests are protected within National Parks and National Reserves. The remaining 83% of Fitzroya forests is mainly within private properties.  The largest is Pumalín Park, which in its 250,000 ha contains significant Alerce forests. In Argentina over 80% of Fitzroya forests occur in protected systems.

Researchers from Universidad Austral de Chile are carrying out ecological restoration of Alerce in the Central Depression using nursery-grown seedlings of local provenances in association with a small land owner and the regional office forest service. Population genetic research has shown that two southern Argentinean populations (Río Tigre and Lago Esperanza) hold genetic "hot spots" for the species and the loss of these subpopulations could result in the loss of significant genetic diversity. The remoteness and relatively small size of these subpopulations has meant that they are relatively untouched and are representative of Fitzroya forests prior to European colonisation and subsequent exploitation. However, these subpopulations are outside of any protected area. The creation of new protected areas, to preserve the populations of Río Tigre and Lago Esperanza in Argentina is an urgent task. The long-term conservation of Fitzroya forests is a great challenge that requires the agreement of numerous social actors and the active participation of individuals, indigenous communities, companies, and the national states from Chile and Argentina.


Varieties: -



  • Farjon, A. (2010). A Handbook of the World's Conifers. Koninklijke Brill, Leiden.
  • Eckenwalder, J.E. (2009) Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference. Timber Press, Portland.
  • IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Cambridge, UK /Gland, Switzerland

Copyright © Aljos Farjon, James E. Eckenwalder, IUCN, Conifers Garden. All rights reserved.

Product CodeFIT8SG9O4
Weight1.5 kg
Height15 - 20 cm

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