The metallic “eg-ypt, eg-ypt” contact call of the crescent honeyeater and the descending rapid twitter of the eastern spinebill might announce in my garden the arrival of autumn and winter, but as a Pom I long for another sign of the changing seasons. That is the vivid colours of the dying leaves on deciduous trees as they turn from green in summer to autumnal shades of red and gold.
To get my autumn tree “fix” I usually stroll the streets of South Hobart which are lined with deciduous trees – the ancient Gingko biloba from China among them – or Hobart’s city parks which have arrays of classic English trees, including oaks, elms and silver birches.
This year, however, I decided to venture further field to track down a deciduous tree not of Europe but unique to Tasmania – the legendary Tasmanian fagus (Nothofagus gunnii).
My quest would take me to the Mount Field National Park and as an added bonus to my autumnal tree hunt there would be birds aplenty, species which make the mountains of Tasmania their home.
As far as birds go, my first steps more than 1000 metres high up in the park were greeted by the pleasant melody of a bird found only in Tasmania, the Tasmanian thornbill and coming out of the mist on higher slopes above Lake Fenton – where I had been told I would find the fagus – came the far-carrying trumpet call of the black currawong, another bird only found on these islands.
But this trip was primarily to be about the fagus, or Tasmanian beech, and I was not to be disappointed. Despite the passion it arouses among botanists – and those like myself who love to witness “the fall” as North Americans describe the autumn leaf-change – the Tasmanian fagus is a humble tree, only growing to a height of about two metres. It is usually found in places best described as inhospitable. It is also called tanglefoot, a name bestowed on it by pioneers and now bushwalkers, caught up in its twisted, ground-hugging branches.
The tree, dating from the ancient continent of Gondwana, is notable for its tiny leaves which in summer are a beautiful lush green but in autumn change to rust or the colour of honey before dropping to the ground. The leaves are rounded and have a grooved crinkle-cut pattern on their surface.
I thought, with such a low aspect and tiny leaves, the fargus might take some finding high up on Mt Field but the plant stopped me in my tracks as soon as I had reached the car park at the lake. The sides of a boulder-strewn hill climbing to the mountain peak were wreathed in spectacular colour, matching the grey tones of the dolerite rocks and the blue-green of the surrounding snow gums and king billy pines.
Timing has to be just right to catch the beech in its full glory. Fagus turns its spectacular range of colours during late April and into May, depending on the temperature in the previous month. I was lucky to catch it at its peak, in the second week of May.