Nothofagus: a portrait of the Antarctic beech forest

Nothofagus leaves. Although this is a South American species, its leaves are similar to those of the myrtle beech which grows in temperate Australia.

Nothofagus, the southern beech, has always held a certain mystique for me. As a child I was an avid reader, and lived in an imaginary world. I was always searching for the forests of Middle Earth, Narnia and Sherwood. Stands of Nothofagus came much closer to this ideal than the grey-blue-green haphazardly-shaped eucalypts that are much more common in the Australian landscape, with their vertically-hanging leaves, and sparse shade. I’m talking here about the two Australian Nothofagus species that form Cool Temperate Rainforests – the myrtle beech Nothofagus cunninghamii and the Antarctic beech N. moorei. These trees hold their branches and leaves horizontally, their limbs and trunks are often covered in verdant green moss, and their neat, rounded leaves turn golden when they drop. Nothofagus trees that grow in warmer climes look quite different, as I was to find out.

Pumpkin and the mountain ash small
My little orange car is dwarfed by mountain ash trees (Eucalyptus regnans) in the Central Highlands of Victoria.

Once I had my own set of wheels I would go exploring the forests of Victoria’s central highlands. The tall mountain ash trees were magnificent, but the real prize was finding patches of Nothofagus. Myrtle beech trees are killed by fire, and in Victoria they persist in only small scattered patches, due to logging and frequent, widespread fires.

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Myrtle beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) growing under mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) in Victoria.

This was an exciting time. I was studying zoology, botany and ecology at university, and loving it. I wanted to do an Honours year, which required academic supervision and a research project. Gordon Sanson was my favorite lecturer and an obvious choice of supervisor – if he would have me. I wanted to combine botany and zoology as I was fascinated with plant-animal interactions. Gordon is quite famous for his work on how the form and function of animal teeth is related to their diet. But I wanted to do something different. When I rather nervously went to talk to Gordon about Honours, we first talked about my interest in birds, which led to talk of Nothofagus, which led to mention of the new lecturer in the department – Jennifer Read, who was a Nothofagus expert. Gordon would consider taking on a plant-animal project including Nothofagus if Jenny agreed to be a co-supervisor.
My uni friends and I were amused by this, as we had seen Gordon and Jenny together more than once, and speculation had started about a possible match. So I went to talk to Jenny, who I hardly knew at all, with Gordon’s idea, feeling a bit like cupid. The result was an Honours project on Nothofagus leaf decomposition. It doesn’t sound flashy, but it was interesting, and laid the groundwork for a PhD scholarship. Gordon and Jenny were my supervisors, and it all worked out so well that I ended up doing my PhD under their supervision too.

Collecting leaves small
Collecting leaves for my Honours project, in the Maroondah Catchment, Victoria.

During this time I had the great good fortune to work in the Nothofagus forests of New Caledonia. Jenny asked me to be a field assistant, and this started a series of annual field trips, I have lost count of how many, I think it ended up as 10 or 11.

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New Caledonian rainforest including Nothofagus (darker vegetation) and maquis (lighter vegetation), at Mont Dzumac.
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Nothofagus codonandra, one of five Nothofagus species found in New Caledonia.

New Caledonia is a botanist’s wonderland. I am not going to say much here, there is far too much to tell. Amazing, diverse rainforests and wet heath (maquis). Delicious patisserie products. Many hours of hard work, often in rain, and bookended by long walks into field sites over slippery red clay tracks. Crows that make and use tools, and yap like small dogs. Large notou pigeons with ghostly booming calls. Mournful yellow robins that perch quietly near you in the forest, like the eastern yellow robins of Australia. And Jenny’s incredible determination, tenacity, questing mind and inexhaustible work ethic. And Gordon was often there too, assisting with the research.

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Packing the car after another day’s field work at Col de Yate, New Caledonia. Note the flat canopies of Agathis ovata emergent over the forest in the background.

Fast forward to now, and I’m living in south east Queensland, and painting a series of forest portraits. I can’t wait to have a go at the Nothofagus moorei forest which has its most northern occurrence near the border of Queensland and New South Wales. I walk to Bithongabel from O’Reilly’s and take lots of photos and do some sketches. Then I go up to Best of All lookout at Springbrook. The Nothofagus trees are just as beautiful as ever, and I relish my work.

Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei) at Bithongabel, Lamington National Park.

Here’s a preliminary sketch:

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Preliminary colour sketch for the Nothofagus forest portrait.

And here’s the final forest portrait:

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Nothofagus forest, south east Queensland. Pastel on paper, original size 52 x 72 cm.

Jenny and Gordon have been inseparable since way back when I did my Honours project, and who better to include in this forest portrait? With them in the forest is their granddaughter Minka Christie.

Notho diagram 2
Some features of Nothofagus forest in south east Queensland: 1. Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei); 2. Moss-covered trunks and branches; 3. Tree ferns and ground ferns; 4. Epiphytic ferns and hanging mosses.

I could write so much more about Nothofagus – its fossil record, the way that it helped to reveal the story of Gondwana, the way that some Nothofagus forests have few birds, and the little skink that lives only in Antarctic beech forests. But I’m afraid all that will have to wait. I needed to explain to you why these forests are special to me, and about two remarkable biologists who started off as my teachers and have become my dear friends.

This is one of a series of posts about forest portraits, which begins with How to draw a forest (Part 1). The next post in this series is The scribbly gum woodland at Freshwater.

Jennifer Read has produced numerous publications about Nothofagus and New Caledonian rainforest ecology (among other things), and there’s more to come. Here’s one of her most recent papers:

You can also read a post I co-authored with Gordon Sanson, which contemplates whether the woomeras used by aboriginals were originally inspired by the hunting action of herons.

12 Responses

  1. Mary

    Another fascinating look at our great variety of rainforest types, together with a pastel portrait. I loved our visit to New Caledonia, admiring its magnificent oceanic bays, beautiful beaches and lush vegetation. What a joy it was to speak some French again and to enjoy food prepared with French flavours. It is an amazing island and I’d visit in a heartbeat if this was possible.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Mary, thankyou for the kind feedback, and it’s great to hear you’ve been to New Caledonia too. It’s a fascinating place and the combination of melanesian and french culture gives it an added dimension, even though it’s the biodiversity that has me besotted. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers, Paula

  2. Helen Schwencke

    Thanks Paula, that was a delightful, wistful read. I’ve yet to get to New Caledonia, though find the Nothofagus forest at Springbrook entirely delightful.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Helen thank you for your lovely comments. I think you would love New Caledonia, and find many intriguing insect – plant associations. Cheers, Paula

  3. Gail

    The Antarctic Beech is a favourite of mine, Paula. Being amongst them feels ancient and rich. You’ve captured it beautifully in this portrait… of a forest which has special meaning to you too.

    • Paula Peeters

      Glad you like it Gail! And as I have said before, it is always very meaningful to me when a forest portrait resonates well with a person who knows and loves that particular forest type. Cheers, Paula

  4. Jane

    I’ve been to the Best of All Lookouts a couple of times and each time marvelled at the Antarctic Beech. It’s quite amazing to think that one of the stands of them is about 2000 years old. Fascinating also to think about the Gondwana story. It was wonderful to read about your background and why these forests are special to you. I think you’ve really captured the majesty and ancient feel of these forests in your picture. Beautiful work, as usual, Paula.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thank you Jane for your ongoing interest and encouragement. It’s a treat for me to share these pictures with like-minded people. Cheers, Paula

  5. Dayna

    We’ve walked up to the Border Track from O’Reillys and marveled at the Antartic Beeches. We we in the clouds that day so couldn’t see into NSW – or the drop that I knew was there – but it created a perfect mood to appreciate these ancient organisms.
    The other beech species that we have been keen to find and photograph in our travels is Nothofagus gunnii – Tasmania’s famous deciduous beech. With its’ characteristic ‘crinkle-cut’ leaves it’s recognisable even in summer when the foliage is green, but because it’s found in alpine areas, it often appears to be more a woody shrub rather than a tree.
    This wonderful genus has definitely been captured well in your painting. I’m so pleased your lecturers have become life-long friends and made an appearance with the beeches. 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Dayna, sorry for the delayed reply, I’ve been on a remote field trip and out of internet range. More about that in my next blog 🙂
      I haven’t had the pleasure of spending much time with N. gunnii although I would love to paint it – especially when the leaves have their autumn colours. I’m glad you enjoyed the picture and the tale. I realize I was pretty fortunate to have had such good PhD supervisors. Not all students get such good supervision, and academics these days are under a lot of pressure to publish, and get little recognition for good teaching. Cheers, Paula

  6. David Tng

    Hi Paula,

    Those are beautiful illustrations and pictures. I miss working in Nothofagus forests (which incidentally was for my honours as well), and it is my dream to one day visit the New Caledonian and South American Nothofagus abodes.


    • Paula Peeters

      Hi David, Thanks for your appreciation of the story, and for Nothofagus in general. I must look up your honours research some time 🙂 . Ah those South American Nothofagus – plenty of stories there for a pile of other blog posts! One of my favorites was the combination of large beautiful Nothofagus ?dombeyi trees next to Monkey Puzzles (Araucaria araucana) with a backdrop of volcanoes. I’m sure you’ll get there one day and have a fabulous time when you do. Maybe combined with a future Southern Connections conference? Cheers, Paula