The strange and increasingly rare trees that South American natives have long regarded as enchanted.
There are some incredible kinds of tree around the globe, and among the most unusual is the Polyepsis, having several utterly unique features, including holding the world record for the highest altitude growing genus in the world. Amazingly, this incredible tree grows at 9,800 to 16,400 feet, far higher than any other, throughout the Andean highlands in South America
Whilst some are very stunted, most polylepis from 35 to 50 ft tall, sometimes 150 ft lower down the mountains, though one of the most threatened in the Andes, far too often harvested for firewood by local peoples, and has been the case since the time of the Incas.
Scientific experts maintain that the high Andes once boasted dense Polylepis woodlands, but deforestation has been so savage that in Ecuador today, this is a protected species, cutting it down a federal crime. Biggest number of these trees in Ecuador is in the highland part of the Cayambe-Coca Biological Reserve, many individuals thought to be several thousand years old at least.
Actually a family member of the rose, Polylepis are far removed from summer garden rose bushes, the name meaning, in Latin, many scales, an accurate description of the papery, layered bark that characterizes this tree type. Permanently bent trees, due to strong winds, have given rise to their occasionally being called enchanted, low canopy, twisted growth pattern and striking red peely bark making the scenery quite surreal.
Long before the Andean highlands ever knew of cattle and sheep, Polylepis forest extended from from Argentina to Venezuela, helping maintain habitats needed by many creatures, as well as keeping fragile soils from eroding away and harboring many types of plant used by local peoples for both food and medicine.
Some Inca descendants live at altitudes of more than 12,000ft, in the ancient town of Cusco, where these trees still provide fuel, building materials and medicine to the local peoples, though current levels of collection and harvesting are threatening the survival of the forests in a major way. Thankfully, conservation measures are now being adopted to ensure the survival of these remarkable trees for future generations.
Being so special in so many ways it would be tragic indeed if the genus was allowed to become extinct, as these remarkable trees have a strange beauty and allure all their own, which ought to be preserved for the future. To let such wondrous specimens of natural curiosity disappear forever is a crime we must never be guilty of committing.
All images used with permission
Published in: Gardening