Story: Conifer–broadleaf forests

With their rich jumble of tangled vines, perching plants and ferns, New Zealand’s conifer–broadleaf forests resemble tropical rainforest. Majestic trees jut up through the leafy canopy, and the forests are home to native birds, bats, lizards and insects.

Story by John Dawson
Main image: Conifer–broadleaf forest interior

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Forests of New Zealand

When people first came to New Zealand, more than three-quarters of the land was covered in forest. Today, only about a quarter is forest. Much of this is conifer–broadleaf forest.

Conifer and broadleaf plants

Conifers are plants that have seeds, but no flowers. They produce cones. Twenty species are found only in New Zealand. Kahikatea, mataī, rimu, tōtara and miro are the most common.

Broadleaf trees have large leaves, and flowers. There are about 100 species in New Zealand, including māhoe, taraire and tawa.

Layered forests

Conifer–broadleaf forests can have five layers of plants:

  • the biggest trees (often conifers), which poke up through the forest roof
  • large broadleaf trees, which form a canopy (roof)
  • smaller trees and tree ferns
  • shrubs
  • ferns, mosses and grassy plants on the forest floor.

There are also many tangled vines and perching plants.


Epiphytes (plants that perch on other plants) live high up in trees. Nest epiphytes look like large birds’ nests. They grow in humus made from their own rotting leaves.

The northern rātā starts life as an epiphyte perched in a tree. Later it sends down roots and becomes a tall tree itself.

Where the forests grow

Conifer–broadleaf forests grow throughout New Zealand. The mix of plants changes from place to place, depending on the weather, soil and other conditions.

Northern New Zealand has warm, rainy weather. The forests there have many species, including plants from tropical families, such as kohekohe.

Further south, the weather is colder. Some plants can’t grow there, but there are some hardy plants that are not found in the north.

In the warm north, kauri can grow in very poor soils. Other conifers such as miro need better soil.

Kahikatea and pukatea can grow in swampy areas. Pōhutukawa grows by the sea because it can cope with salty winds.

Loss of forests

After Māori arrived, they burnt large areas of forest. Later, Europeans cut down and burnt much more of the forest.

Rats, possums and other animals have damaged the trees and killed native animals.

Role of birds

Native birds are important for pollinating plants and spreading their seeds. Kererū (New Zealand pigeons) spread the seeds of many plants. There are not many kererū left, so some plants may be in danger.

How to cite this page:

John Dawson, 'Conifer–broadleaf forests', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by John Dawson, published 24 September 2007