A conifer tree usually with a classic conical shape.
- Grows up to 15 metres tall, smaller in exposed environments.
- Older tree often have multiple trunks and some dead branches.
- Individual leaves mid to dark green, small (3-5 mm long) and scale-like, closely clasped to stems.
- Leaves densely arranged around stems, forming a rope-like branchlet less than 5 mm in diameter.
- Male and female cones usually on separate branches, at the tips of the stems.
- Male cones small (4-5 mm diameter), develop between February and May, persist until Spring.
- Female cones 12-15 mm diameter, develop between September and February, cones can persist for several months after seed shed in Autumn. Gold in colour, becoming reddish-brown with age.
- Seeds mature and are released between April and May.
- Large quantities of cones are produced during ‘mast’ years, typically every 5 or 6 years, with much less fruiting in other years.
What to Observe
- Healthy trees – little or no browning and death of foliage
- Unhealthy trees – recent widespread browning and death of foliage
- Presence of unopen fresh (fleshy) female cones
- Open female cones
ClimateWatch Science Advisor
Athrotaxis are adapted to cool and wet conditions and are expected to show signs of stress and eventual dieback if the climate becomes warmer and drier.
Timing and patterns of fruiting are likely to occur in response to climate change. The 5 to 6 yearly synchronised mass seeding of Athrotaxis may already have changed to a more variable and unpredictable pattern.
“Pencil pine faces a number of threats, including lack of recruitment due to grazing pressure, destruction by wildfire and long-term impacts of climate change. We know that pencil pine is likely to suffer from moisture stress if its habitat becomes warmer and drier, but it is harder to predict how climate change will influence factors such as competition with other tree species, outbreaks of pests or diseases and the incidence of wildfire.”
When To Look
Observations of tree health can be made at any time.
Fresh female cones should be visible in summer.
Where To Look
Natural distribution is Tasmania’s Central Highlands and a few mountains in the South West wilderness, usually above 800 metres elevation.
Occurs as the dominant tree in subalpine rainforests and woodlands.
Australian Biological Resources Study (1998) "Ferns, gymnosperms and allied groups." Flora of Australia, Vol. 48. CSIRO Publishing.
N.J. Enright & R.S. Hill (eds) (1995) Ecology of the southern conifers. Melbourne University Press.
King Billy pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides) has larger sharply-pointed leaves which are not tightly clasped to the stems. Hybrid pencil pine (A. X laxifolia) has foliage intermediate between King Billy pine and pencil pine, that is they are slightly spreading from the stem.
Did You Know?
Athrotaxis has been around for a long time: 150 million year old Athrotaxis fossils from Argentina are similar in appearance to present day pencil pine. These trees were a prominent feature of the rainforests on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, but now only two species survive in the cool wet climate of Tasmania’s highlands.
Pencil pine is slow-growing – it can take more than 50 years to reach one metre tall – but it can live for 1300 years, placing this species amongst the longest lived trees in the world.