Story: Conifers

Page 6. Small conifers

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There is a group of small to medium-sized conifers that are all members of the podocarp family.


Manoao or Kirk’s pine (Halocarpus kirkii), a medium-sized tree up to 25 metres tall, grows only in the northern North Island, where it is relatively uncommon. Like bog pine and pink pine, its foliage passes through an abrupt change from narrow, spreading juvenile leaves to scale-like adult leaves. The juvenile leaves are much bigger than those of bog or pink pine. When ripe, manoao seeds have a fleshy orange base.

Pink pine

Pink pine (Halocarpus biformis) is a shrub or small tree of high-altitude forest and subalpine scrub. In the North Island it grows on the Volcanic Plateau and the mountains from the Tararua Range to Mt Hikurangi. It is abundant from 300 metres to the treeline on poorly drained soils on the western side of the South Island, and descends to sea level in Fiordland and on Stewart Island. It is less common on the eastern side of the main divide, being found on hilltops around Dunedin and in the Catlins Range.

Juvenile leaves are narrow, 1–2 centimetres long and 2 millimetres wide, soft and spreading, whereas adult leaves are closely pressed to the twig, scale-like, and only 2 millimetres long.

Pink pine is slow growing. In favourable conditions it can reach 12 metres, but on windswept ridges forms a creeping shrub only 1 metre tall. Its sweet-smelling, pink wood contains manool, a chemical used as a base for perfumes.

Bog pine

Bog pine (Halocarpus bidwillii) is a widespread, bushy shrub of subalpine and alpine scrub in the North and South islands. It grows on boggy ground and well-drained stony terraces. As with pink pine, there is a distinct change from juvenile to adult foliage, but the twigs are thinner and leaves smaller. Bog pine’s juvenile leaves are narrow, 0.5–1 centimetres long, soft and spreading. Its adult leaves are closely pressed to the twig, scale-like, and less than 2 millimetres long. It seldom grows taller than 3 metres.

Yellow silver pine

Yellow silver pine (Lepidothamnus intermedius) is a small (up to 15-metre-tall), often multi-stemmed tree. It has a scattered distribution on boggy upland soils in the North Island, is locally abundant on infertile soils on the West Coast of the South Island, and prominent in swamp forest on Stewart Island.

The saplings have long, drooping branches with spreading scale leaves similar to those of rimu saplings, although they have a distinct ridge.

Pygmy pine

Pygmy pine (Lepidothamnus laxifolius) is one of the smallest conifers in the world. It forms sprawling, shrubby mats 30–50 centimetres in height. It is found in boggy alpine and subalpine ground from the Ruahine Range in the North Island south to Stewart Island. Its foliage can be green, olive green or blue-green. Pygmy pine hybridises with yellow silver pine and pink pine.

How low can you grow?

Sometimes pygmy pine is described as the world’s smallest conifer, but this honour rightfully belongs to Lepidothamnus fonkii of Argentina and Chile. Its maximum height is 60 centimetres, whereas pygmy pine can grow to a height of 1 metre in sheltered sites.

Silver pine

Silver pine (Manoao colensoi) is a small tree found from northern New Zealand to south Westland, although it is only common on the poorly drained, infertile soils of Westland. It grows slowly to a maximum height of 15 metres, but is often found as a shrub on boggy soils. This tree was originally described as a Dacrydium, but since 1995 has been placed in its own genus.

It resembles a young kahikatea, but the yellow-green foliage is quite distinct from the bright green or blue-green of kahikatea. Silver pine shows a gradual transition from narrow juvenile leaves to scale-like adult leaves. Unlike other conifers, young silver pine can arise as suckers from the roots of old trees.

It has a very durable, yellow-white wood, which was used by European settlers for fence posts, telegraph poles and railway sleepers. It is also a source of manool and manoyl oxide, two chemicals used in perfumes.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Conifers - Small conifers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 December 2023)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 Sep 2007