Miro and mataī are two large, closely related podocarps. They produce seeds enclosed in a fleshy plum-like covering. These are important foods for native forest birds such as kererū (wood pigeons), kākā (brown parrots) and kōkako (wattlebirds).
Mataī (Prumnopitys taxifolia) grows to 30 metres tall and the trunk to 2 metres in diameter. It is found throughout lowland forests of the North and South islands. It favours fertile, well-drained soils, and like tōtara can grow where there is low rainfall. The extent of mataī has been reduced after the conversion of lowland forest to farmland. Mataī live for about 1,000 years.
Young mataī look so different from the mature trees that early botanists failed to recognise they were the same species. Mataī begins life as a divaricating shrub – a tangle of interlaced branches with tiny brown leaves. Growing slowly in shaded forest, it may take 50 years to reach 2 metres, and eventually reaches 3–5 metres in height. After this, as it continues to grow, it develops a cylindrical trunk and rounded crown.
Adult leaves are about 1 centimetre long and 4 millimetres wide, in two irregular rows about the stem. They are dark green with a bluish-white underside. Mature trunks have a hammer-marked appearance, caused by circular pieces of bark flaking off.
Male and female cones are borne on separate trees. Heavy seeding years occur infrequently. Mataī produces hard-coated seeds, each enclosed in a fleshy purple cover. They are dispersed by forest birds, which digest the outer covering and excrete the seeds. By contrast, introduced mammals such as rats, pigs and possums destroy mataī and other podocarp seeds as they feed.
The peak period of mataī milling was in the 1950s. The hard, reddish-brown wood made excellent flooring timber and window sills. The timber was also popular with Whanganui Māori for carving.
Early in the 1600s, a baby named Hinehopu was hidden under a large mataī tree by her mother. In later years, Hinehopu met her future husband Pikiao beside the tree and the two became the founding ancestors of the Ngāti Pikiao tribe, in the Rotorua area. The tree still stands alongside Hinehopu’s track (now part of State Highway 30), which links Lake Rotoiti to Lake Rotoehu. It is known as the wishing tree or Hinehopu’s tree.
Miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea) grows to 25 metres tall and its trunk to 1 metre in diameter, forming a round-headed tree. It is widely distributed in lowland and high-altitude forests from north Auckland to Stewart Island. The tree prefers moist, well-drained soils, and fine specimens grow on the deep pumice soils of the central North Island.
Young plants look like miniature versions of adults. They have dark green, feathery, needle-like leaves flattened into two rows. Small mataī and miro trees look similar, but can be distinguished because miro oozes resin from its bark when it receives an injury.
Each year miro produces a regular crop of fleshy, bright red seeds, which smell strongly of turpentine. The seeds are an important food for forest birds in winter. Māori hunted kererū (New Zealand pigeons) at this time, as the birds often gorged themselves on so many seeds that they could barely fly.
In the past, miro was used mainly for building houses. The timber looks like rimu and has similar properties.