Artist Freya Morgan reports from the deepest forests of Chile, where she is exploring the long lost cousins of the traditional beech tree – to create a unique piece of artwork for Eden’s garden next spring.
The beech tree has always been an inspiration to me as an artist. I love the magical, glass-like quality of its leaves, which filter the sunlight like illuminated lace – as well as its rich folklore.
So I was fascinated to learn about its siblings in the Southern hemisphere, which grow throughout South America and Australasia – and have even grown in Antarctica, fossils show.
In October I set out on a two-month trip around Chile to get to know its nine endemic species more intimately, to build up a mental portrait of each of them which will help to shape my forthcoming installation in Eden’s ‘Wild Chile’ garden.
On my journey I’ve seen beech trees growing in places you can’t imagine: in cool, Andean woods, in rainforests full of hummingbirds, and even in misty forests where blue glaciers loom in the background.
I’ve learnt about their different bark, their leaves – some of the species are actually evergreens – and how important they are to the Mapuche people. Beech wood has been used for centuries for ritual carvings, to make bows for hunting and to build their rucas (dwellings).
Mapuche names for different beech species tell a story about the tree. For example, Coigüe comes from the Mapuche words 'co', meaning 'water', and 'hue', meaning 'place'. And sure enough, it’s a species which needs moist soils and is often found near lakes and rivers.
The forests and beech trees are also home to an incredible range of wildlife. In England the traditional beech shelters songbirds and invertebrates; in Chile it’s butterflies and lizards, the world's smallest deer (pudú), and the beautiful South American fox (zorro).
I hope to be able to share with you the essence of each of these special trees through my artwork at Eden in the spring – and to conjure up what it is like to stand beneath a canopy of these beautiful green cathedrals.