Most of the 100 or so species of Podocarpus grow in tropical forests in the southern hemisphere, although some are found in Japan and southern China.
The four New Zealand species are known by their Māori name of tōtara.
Tōtara (Podocarpus totara) is one of New Zealand’s forest giants, and the largest species in its genus. It grows to 40 metres in height, with a trunk diameter of 6 metres. It is common in lowland areas of the North and South islands on fertile, well-drained to drought-prone soils. It does not grow on Stewart Island.
Adult trees are covered in a thick bark that peels off in strips. The leaves are needle-like, about 2.5 centimetres long and 3–4 millimetres wide. Young tōtara are unpalatable to grazing stock and will regenerate on pasture where tōtara have previously grown. In some farming districts it is common to see groves of secondary tōtara in grass paddocks.
Tōtara readily forms hybrids with the other three species of Podocarpus. It can be difficult to identify individual specimens at sites where tōtara and Hall’s tōtara meet and hybridise. Golden tōtara, a popular cultivated plant, originates from a natural hybrid of tōtara and needle-leaved tōtara. All golden tōtara plants are male and are propagated from cuttings.
Tōtara was one of the most useful timber trees in the New Zealand forest. Māori favoured it, as its reddish-brown timber is light, and long canoes could easily be hollowed out from its tall trunks. They had other uses too: houses, carvings, musical instruments and toys, and the bark was used for roofing, torches, containers, and splints for broken limbs.
Tōtara timber was also used extensively by European settlers. Its durability meant that it was the preferred timber for railway sleepers, wharf and house piles, telegraph poles and fence posts.
The largest living tōtara, known as Pouākani, is 39.6 metres tall with a trunk diameter of 3.6 metres. It grows near Mangapēhi in the King Country, and is thought to be 1,800 years old.
Hall’s or thin-bark tōtara (Podocarpus hallii) is a smaller, high-altitude version of common tōtara. It grows to about 20 metres in height and is distinguished from tōtara by its thin, flaky bark. It is found from Northland to Stewart Island. Along with kaikawaka, Hall’s tōtara is the dominant mountain tree in regions where beech is absent (Mt Taranaki, central Westland and Stewart Island). Its leaves are a little larger than those of tōtara and have a distinct vein running down the centre.
At the time of Māori settlement in the South Island, Hall’s tōtara formed extensive forests on the eastern side and in Central Otago. These were burnt some 500–750 years ago, and grassland appeared in their place. When Europeans settled the region, they found that the fallen Hall’s tōtara logs were still in sound condition, and used them for fencing. Regenerating forest remnants grow on rocky bluffs.
The species name commemorates J. W. Hall, who grew specimens of the tree in his Thames garden in the 1870s.
The foliage of the needle-leaved tōtara (Podocarpus acutifolius) is prickly to the touch. This tōtara is usually a small sprawling shrub, seldom exceeding 1 metre in height, although it can grow as a small tree on fertile soils. It is found in the northern half of the South Island, often growing in the understorey of beech forests. It readily forms hybrids with Hall’s tōtara, producing a small tree up to 9 metres tall.
Snow tōtara (Podocarpus nivalis) is a spreading shrub of alpine habitats in the North and South islands. It is common in the Southern Alps, where it grows to an altitude of 1,500 metres. In the North Island it is found on the mountains of the Volcanic Plateau and as far north as the summit of Moehau on the Coromandel Peninsula.
The spreading branches of snow tōtara take root easily, and a plant can grow into a 3-metre-wide bush that is only half a metre tall. New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the kea, feeds on its succulent, bright red fruits.