The Anchorena Alcornoque

In Parque Anchorena, the country residence of the President of Uruguay, a gigantic cork oak (Quercus suber L.) holds sway over the wide lawn in front of the Tudor style house.  In Spanish, the common name for Q. suber is alcornoque, which derives from Arabic (‘al’ is the definite article in that language) and in turn from the Latin ‘quernus’ (oaken). The Anchorena Alcornoque has caught the attention of oak enthusiasts in the past: it is shown in the Guide illustré de Chênes, the quercophiles’ vade mecum, and has been written about in an International Dendrology Society (IDS) Yearbook. Here’s an update on its current status and some background on how it came to stand where it does. It all started with a pioneering balloon flight.

The Anchorena Alcornoque in winter, a reduced canopy reveals the branch structure

Aarón de Anchorena was born in 1877 into one of the wealthiest families in Argentina. Following an education in Europe, his youth was spent in pursuit of adventure – particularly in the fields of hunting, car racing and ballooning – and traveling around the world or to unexplored parts of his native land. By the time he was thirty, his concerned mother insisted that he should settle down, quite literally in fact: she would buy him an estancia (large farm) as an advance on his inheritance if he kept both feet on the ground and gave up his new passion for balloon flying. Aarón agreed on the condition that he should be allowed one last flight and be able to choose the land in question from the air. The flight he proposed was an intrepid first crossing of the River Plate. Flying across a river sounds insignificant, but bear in mind this is the world’s widest river and that opposite Buenos Aires, his chosen departure point, it is 50 km (30 miles) across. For this purpose he had a silk balloon shipped out from France, together with a pilot. As hydrogen and helium were not readily available in Buenos Aires in those days, the balloon was filled with the coal gas used for street lighting. The French pilot explained that this gas would not provide the required lift and refused to take part in the flight. Aarón was not interested in the laws of physics. He asked for a volunteer from the crowd present to take the French expert’s place and join him in the flight. A hand shot up: it belonged to the Director of Public Street Lighting of the city of Buenos Aires, Jorge Newbery; perhaps he felt responsible for the situation as his firm was supplying the coal gas that would hoist the craft aloft.

Anchorena's balloon takes off in Buenos Aires on Christmas Day 1907.
(Photo from the book 'Aaron de Anchorena, una vida privilegiada.')

They set off, rising steadily to a height of 3,000 m (9,800 ft) as the south-westerly breeze carried them towards the coast of Uruguay. However, the French expert’s reservations about the lack of required lift were not unfounded: while the coast was still far off, the balloon began to lose altitude. The adventurers started throwing off ballast and eventually had to release the basket in which they stood and hang on for dear life to the balloon’s harness, and that is how they splashed into the shallow waters of the Uruguayan beach. Aarón liked the look of the land where they landed and true to her word his mother purchased it for him – all 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of it.

His wings now clipped, Aarón focused on beautifying his estate, hiring German landscape architect Hermann Böttrich to lay out the park and importing exotic species to plant in it, including 66 species of Eucalyptus that Aarón personally brought from Australia. Anchorena also introduced wild boar from Europe and axis deer from India to serve as cannon fodder for his hunting parties. The former ran wild and are not exactly farmers’ favorites, but the deer thrived in the park and are its picturesque denizens today. During masting season they gather under the large cork oak and the other oaks in Parque Anchorena.

An impressive forked Norfolk Island pine dwarfs the cork oak. A herd of axis deer can be seen in the background. 

It is assumed that these first plantings, which began in 1908, included a cork oak seedling that would over the following century grow into the colossus that dominates the wide expanse of lawn in Parque Anchorena, originally Aarón’s golf course.  When IOS members Peter Laharrague and Duncan Cameron came across it unexpectedly in January 2003 (see "Member Spotlight," in Oak News & Notes Vol 17, No. 2, p. 7), Peter estimated its dimensions as follows: height 23 m, girth 5.2 m and crown spread 30 m. These figures bear comparison with Old World champions such the Portuguese giant ‘Sobreiro de Pai Anes’ (height 18 m, girth 7.3 m), and the Alcornoque de la Corte del Romero in Spain (height 17 m, girth 7.5 m). The crown spread of the Anchorena cork oak is problematic: while the oak was allowed to spread its branches in most directions, to the northeast it is hindered by a Liquidambar styraciflua L. planted a scarce 20 m away. When Peter Laharrague reported on the Anchorena Alcornoque to the IDS, the then Chairman of the IDS, Lawrence Banks, wrote a letter to the then President of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, recommending that the offending sweetgum be removed, so as to unfetter the majestic cork oak that graced the grounds of his residence. The advice has not been acted on.

The liquidambar problem: this angle shows how the sweetgum interferes with the oak's canopy.

In July 2013 I obtained permission to measure the Anchorena Alcornoque and noted the following dimensions: girth 5.6 m, height 23.2 m, crown spread 38.2 m (SE-NW) and 36 m (E-W). Even allowing for margin of error in the 2003 and 2013 measurements, it appears that the oak is still growing steadily and is well on its way to compete with and perhaps overtake its European brethren. The size of the crown spread is particularly noteworthy. A study of notable trees in Andalucía, Spain, Arboles y Arboledas Singulares de Andalucía, lists many outstanding cork oaks and their dimensions: the largest crown spread recorded is 35 m, and the average is 22 m. I have yet to find evidence of a cork oak with a larger crown spread than this Uruguayan specimen. Should any reader know of one, please let us know!

Sweetgum and cork oak with spring foliage, with humans bottom left for scale. (Photo: Beth Dos Santos)

Aarón died in 1965 and he willed his estancia to the Uruguayan state, specifically for the purpose of serving as a residence for the head of state. (Incidentally, Aarón’s volunteer companion on the fateful balloon flight, Jorge Newbery, who had never flown before, went on to become the founder of Argentine aviation – the domestic airport in Buenos Aires is named after him.) While we do not know the exact year the cork oak was planted, it is safe to say it is a century old, still in its salad days compared to the European champions that have been growing for three or four hundred years. It may well be the case that its speedy growth will lead to an early demise, but till then it will continue to be a joy to behold and an interesting case study of the behavior of this species outside its native habitat.

IOS members Peter Laharrague (right) and Duncan Cameron "discovered" the cork oak in January 2003. (Photo: Marilyn Mulville)

With thanks to Michel Timacheff, Francisco Vazquez and Shaun Haddock for information on noteworthy cork oaks in Europe, and to Mario Vega and María José Colo for permission to measure the cork oak in Parque Anchorena. For a full account of Aarón de Anchorena’s life (in Spanish): Aarón de Anchorena, una vida privilegiada, Presidencia de la República, Montevideo, 1998. 

Photos by author unless specified.