Home Australia | Oceania The Gondwanan tree hiding out in Tasmania’s mountains

The Gondwanan tree hiding out in Tasmania’s mountains

by Catherine Marshall
Fagus in Tasmania

The prehistoric fagus – Australia’s only temperate native deciduous tree – bursts into a flame of autumnal colour as winter approaches.


There’s a refugee from Gondwanaland hiding out in the mountains of Tasmania. Its name is Nothofagus gunnii – but it goes by the alias fagus. This rare fellow is one of just a few Australian deciduous trees, and the only native specimen that loses its leaves in autumn; it is a peculiar relic from the Precambrian era when parts of the southern and eastern hemispheres were conjoined in a single supercontinent.

“It’s a survivor from when Australia had a much colder, wetter climate,” says professional gardener and botanical tour guide Simon Rickard.

Fagus Mt Field National Park Tasmania.

Old-timers called fagus ‘tanglefoot’ because of its weaving branches and propensity to trip people up. Photo: Geoff Murray.

Autumn’s burning bush

And though the fagus keeps a low profile during spring and summer in its high alpine hideouts in Mt Field National Park and Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park (part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area), it outs itself in an audacious display as Tasmania slides into autumn. The fagus leaves turn from emeralds cut in the shape of compact fans to golden pennies shimmering like treasure upon the trees; sometimes, when weather conditions are just right, the spray transforms into a cascade of rubies; the leaves shimmy in reflective metallic streaks across the mountain tarns.

“It’s essentially impossible to cultivate, so you do need to go to central Tasmania to see the colours turn,” Simon says.

But local couple Rachel and Greg Power don’t need to go much further than their back door to see the ‘turning of the fagus’, as the spectacle is known. When they moved from Canberra to Mt Field National Park in 2012, they – like most other people – hadn’t heard of this remarkable tree that grows nowhere else on earth. Today, they are the proprietors of the park’s Waterfalls Café, which hosts the annual Fagus Weekend along with Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.

Though fagus coppices can also be seen near Cradle Mountain, Mt Field’s Lake Fenton region is the only place where visitors can drive through glades of the colour-changing tree, says Rachel (pictured above in a photo taken by Greg). And though fagus has grown a reputation as temperate deciduous species, it earns its keep no matter the season. In winter, the tree’s bare branches create a ghostly backdrop for the tiny jewelled fungi that flourish in their midst.

“[In] the thick of our fungi season…  I generally post one photo a day [on Facebook], and if I forget to post a photo I start getting messages from people going, ‘where’s my fungi photo for today?'” Rachel says.

Autumn colours Tasmania fagus.

Fagus transforms from green to copper, gold and red in autumn. Photo: Kelly Slater/Tourism Tasmania.

The tanglefoot that tangles feet

In spring, new leaves unfold like tiny paper napkins, and wildlife is rebirthed – including the new generations of endangered eastern quolls that have lived in the Powers’ roof over the years they’ve been here.

“The fagus through summer is a gorgeous, low-lying tree with stunningly bright green leaves. It is often found intertwined in the rocks, giving a stark contrast in colours. The old-timers used to call it tanglefoot because of its weaving branches that would catch the unsuspecting hiker,” Rachel says.

“Summer is all about the long evening twilight and the platypus spotting – and that’s just the beginning… We are absolutely blessed to be in the place that we are, and we don’t take it for granted for a single day. It’s the most incredible spot.” TTW

The annual Fagus Weekend is held on the weekend closest to ANZAC Day. Find out more on Rachel and Greg Power’s Waterfalls Café site, where you can also receive updates on seasonal happenings. Fagus trees are easily accessible from Mt Field National Park’s Lake Fenton; experienced hikers can view them on a seven-hour round-trip hike to Tarn Shelf; and visitors to Cradle Mountain can see fagus on the easily accessible Weindorfers Forest Walk. For gardening inspiration follow Simon Rickard on Instagram.  

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