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Southern beeches thrive on two continents.

South American cherry wood belongs to the group of trees known as the southern beeches, so named because Fagus means beech, and Nothofagus refers to beeches of the southern hemisphere. They are all members of the beech or Fagaceae family. Three main species of Nothofagus are called by various names, but also by the common name southern beeches. These species are Nothofagus pumilio, Nothofagus procera and Nothofagus dombeyi.

Southern beeches are relatively unknown in the woodworking world. "The rid has been pretty thoroughly ransacked for trees. It is unlikely that even in China any significant genus remains undiscovered. There is, however, one highly significant and decorative one which is still virtually unexploited and unknown: the southern beeches. Here is a race of trees of remarkable singularity, style, and speed. But where do you see them? Few nurseries have ever heard of them," said Hugh Johnson in his book, Encyclopedia of Trees.

Of the southern beeches found in Chile, coigue looks similar to cherry veneer and is sometimes called Brazilian cherry. Coigue, rauli and lengue or South American cherry wood are used for furniture components, cabinet work, millwork, cooperage and all-purpose timber, especially in the countries where they grow. Rauli is a popular choice for interior trim, joinery, doors, window frames and flooring.

The advantage of the wood is that it finishes extremely well, is very easy to work with hand and machine tools, plus it glues and screws well. According to Norman Hahn, president of Conestoga Wood Specialties, South American cherry retains its finish better when exposed to light than does American cherry, which has a tendency to darken. He added that the wood has the characteristic of three American species found in Pennsylvania: western alder, Pennsylvania and American cherry and maple. "It is a mixture of the three," said Hahn.

In some countries Nothofagus species are substituted for beech, although they tend to be one-third lighter than beech. The heartwood of these trees, such as rauli, has a uniform reddish brown to bright cherry red color. Unlike the true beeches, Nothofagus do not have a prominent fleck figure. The wood is usually straight-grained and of uniform texture. Selected logs from pumilio and procera are cut for decorative veneers and used for cabinetwork, paneling and other architectural uses, fine furniture, butcher blocks, cutting boards and grandfather clocks.

'South American cherry' a misnomer

In the United States, the southern beeches are marketed under various names. South American cherry wood is also sold by the trademarked names, including Luceena (on the Northwest Coast) and Fireland Cherry (the name used by Conestoga).

Larry Frye, executive director of the Fine Hardwoods Assn./American Walnut Assn., explained that South American cherry wood is not a true cherry or member of the genus Serotina.

South American cherry wood can grow in very unusual areas, such as the sides of the Andes Mountains, areas with poor or thin soil and in volcanic ash. The trees also grow well in cold climates and in extreme conditions.

Branches across the water

Several experts claim that the presence of the southern beeches in Australia and South America can be explained by the theory that the southern land masses separated. In "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, Timbers and Forests of the World," editor Herbert Edlin addresses this theory.

"Other southern beeches are scattered across the southern hemisphere from Australia and Tasmania to Chile and Patagonia and northward into New Caledonia and New Guinea. The myrtle beech (N. cunninghamii) of Victoria is a magnificent limber tree equalled by the roble beech (N. obliqua) and raoul (N. procera), both of Chile. Antarctic beech (N. antarctica) reaches down to Tierra del Fuego. Like its relative, the dwarf beech (N. pumilio) of Chile, it drops it leaves in the autumn.

"Although separated by an entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean, the closest relative of the dwarf beech is gunn's beech (N. gunnii) of the mountains of Tasmania. They share a number of characteristics, including leaves with rounded teeth and veins which run, not as usual to the tips of the teeth, but to the base of indentations between them.

"This remarkable distribution is not due to seeds drifting across the ocean to start new colonies on a distant shore, for the nuts sink in water and are soon killed by salt. It is known from fossil pollen that the southern beeches date back to the (Cretaceous) period 100 million years ago. Evidence is growing to support the belief that during the Cretaceous period, all the countries where Nothofagus now grows were united into a single land mass, which has since been broken up and scattered by continental drift. Normal seed scattering on continuous land would allow the intricate pattern of relationships to be built which now exists. Many crossings and recrossings of the ocean would be necessary to achieve the same result, but for this the evidence is scanty."

The hardiest of Nothofagus species are the ones native to Chile (Nothofagus procera). Of the many species of Nothofagus, there are deciduous and evergreen trees. Most have tiny leaves, although Nothofagus procera has some leaves up to 4 inches long.


Family Names

Nothofagus pumilio, Nothofagus procera, and Nothofagus dombeyi of the Family Fagaceae

Other Names

N. pumilio: South American cherry wood, lenga, lengue, Fireland cherry, Luceena. N. procera and N. dombeyi: rauli, Chilean beech, South American beech, coigue, anis, coyan, hualo, roble rauili, coihue, lengue, nire, roble.


Trees grow to 130 feet with diameters of 2 1/2 feet. Average weight is 34 pounds per cubic foot.


Wood dries slowly, with little degrade. Has medium density, bending and crushing strength; low stiffness and low resistance to crushing strengths. Works well with hand and machine tools. Easy to glue and finish.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Australia and South America
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Previous Article:The design connection.
Next Article:M and J Woodcrafts: fine to the finish.

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