The Maoris prized this forest tree more highly than any other because of the remarkable qualities of its timber. The heartwood is very durable and the Maoris found the wood could be readily split and shaped with primitive stone tools for canoes, building, and carving. The same properties made it a valuable timber to the first European settlers for house and wharf piles, and for those parts of buildings requiring durable members.
The tree is a conifer with a wide distribution in North, South, and Stewart Islands. It occurs more sparsely than rimu, the main large forest tree, but is plentiful on shingly river flats. It is closely related to another species P. hallii, or Hall's totara, which is a somewhat smaller species growing at higher altitudes. The prostrate or shrubby species of Podocarpus, P. acutifolius and P. nivalis – the former sometimes a small tree – are related to the extent that groups of hybrids occur.
Totara is a tree reaching 120 ft high and has a diameter of up to 6 or 7 ft through. Along with other conifers, in particular rimu, it usually forms the scattered, emergent storey stretching above the dense canopy of broadleaf trees. The bark is thick and stringy – that of P. hallii is thin and papery – and the leaves, linear and sharp pointed, are less than an inch long and very dark green-brownish in colour. The flowers are dioecious, the female being on short peduncles which turn red and often become swollen. The nuts are embedded in these.
by Alec Lindsay Poole, M.SC., B.FOR.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Director-General of Forests, Wellington.