Conifers are cone-bearing, woody seed plants. They belong to an ancient group called gymnosperms, which appeared 360 million years ago – long before flowering plants. In most temperate and tropical forests conifers have been superseded by flowering plants, but in New Zealand they dominate rainforests and some shrublands with infertile soils.
New Zealand’s 20 native conifers are found nowhere else. They belong to four families:
Conifers reproduce by means of male and female cones. Male cones produce pollen, and female cones produce seeds. In some New Zealand conifers, male and female cones grow on separate trees. Unlike the seeds of flowering plants, conifer seeds are not enclosed in a fruit but are attached to a cone scale.
Kauri, kaikawaka and kawaka are the only native conifers to produce woody cones that split open when mature, releasing seeds into the wind. The seed cones of podocarps and celery pines are smaller, surrounded by a fleshy support or cover, and their seeds are distributed by birds.
All the native conifers are evergreen. They have narrow, needle-like or scale-like leaves, and in this respect contrast with many flowering trees, which are broad-leaved. The juvenile leaves of some are quite different from their adult form.
Foresters often call conifers softwoods, and flowering trees hardwoods. These terms are not an absolute guide to the hardness of their wood, but generally most flowering trees have harder wood than conifers. Whau (Entelea arborescens) is one exception – its wood is so soft and light that it was used by Māori for floats on their fishing nets.
There is debate as to whether New Zealand’s conifers are direct descendants of plants that grew on the supercontinent Gondwana, over 85 million years ago, or are more recent arrivals from Australia and New Caledonia. New Zealand has conifer fossils from Cretaceous times (63–80 million years ago), including a type of kauri and some podocarps, but they are not identical to today’s conifers. Other gymnosperm fossils (ginkgo, cycad and gnetale) have been found in Cretaceous deposits, but these plants died out in New Zealand millions of years ago.
Kauri (Agathis australis) is a massive tree. Some specimens living today are over 50 metres tall and have trunks up to 4.4 metres in diameter, but larger trees, now cut down or burnt, were recorded in the 19th century. They can live for centuries – the oldest are estimated to be 2,000 years of age.
Kauri grows naturally only in the northern North Island, its southern limit being around latitude 38° south. In prehistoric times it grew as far south as Invercargill.
Until 2000, no natural regeneration of kauri had been seen south of its current limit (between Kāwhia and Te Puke). But in 2001 and 2002, seedlings sprouted next to planted, semi-mature trees in New Plymouth and Wellington. These locations are respectively 120 and 365 kilometres south of kauri’s natural range.
Kauri has flat, hard leaves, 2–5 centimetres long and 1 centimetre wide, that are often bronze-coloured in young plants. As the saplings grow they take on a conical form known as a ricker, and after 100 years or so the trees shed their lower branches and develop a wide crown and column-shaped trunk.
Seed and pollen cones are produced on the same tree. The female cone is the size and shape of a tennis ball and takes three years to ripen. When mature it disintegrates, releasing winged seeds that are carried off by the wind. Seedlings grow fast in sheltered, well-lit situations such as track edges or among tea-tree scrub.
Kauri produces a sticky white resin from cracks in its bark. This was chewed by northern Māori, who also burnt it, using the soot for tattooing. Large quantities of fossil kauri gum were dug out of Northland swamps between 1850 and 1930, for use in making varnishes and linoleum.
The timber is honey-coloured, quite soft, and even-grained. Northern Māori used the trunks for war canoes. Europeans felled hectares of kauri, at first for masts and spars for navy ships, then as a multi-purpose timber. Much of it was used for building houses, and it was also popular for boats. Supplies decreased from the 1930s, and kauri was subsequently used only as a speciality timber for furniture, veneers and boat building. Today only recycled wood is used.
New Zealand has two species of the fragrant cedar Libocedrus – known as kawaka and kaikawaka. Both grow into attractive cone-shaped trees with reddish-brown bark that peels away from the trunk and hangs in long, thin strips. Their leaves are reduced to pairs of tiny, overlapping scales.
Male and female cones are produced on the same tree. When ripe, the tiny, woody female cones split open and release two winged seeds. Libocedrus has been in New Zealand for at least 60 million years.
Kawaka or lowland cedar (Libocedrus plumosa) is a tree of lowland forests in the northern half of the North Island and the north-west tip of the South Island. It grows 25 metres high, with a trunk just over 1 metre in diameter. Its very flattened branchlets differentiate it from kaikawaka. The dark red wood splits cleanly, and was often used for house shingles and cabinet work.
Kaikawaka, pāhautea or mountain cedar (Libocedrus bidwillii) grows in upland and subalpine forests throughout the mainland, and seldom exceeds 20 metres in height. It favours humidity and poorly drained soils, and descends to low elevations on the West Coast where there is high rainfall.
It is long-lived, at least to 700 years. Some kaikawaka on Mt Taranaki survived partial burial by volcanic ash during an eruption in 1655.
In the past, kaikawaka timber was sometimes used for weatherboards, boat planking and railway sleepers.
Rimu and kahikatea were once widespread in lowland forest, but both have been extensively milled for their valuable timbers. They belong to New Zealand’s largest conifer family, the podocarps – a group that does not have woody cones. Instead, their female cones are reduced to single scales that ripen into solitary seeds surrounded by or sitting on brightly coloured, fleshy structures that attract birds.
Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) is the commonest and most widely distributed conifer in New Zealand, growing from Northland down to Stewart Island. It is a tall tree, and its crown usually emerges above the main canopy of forest trees. On well-drained fertile sites, it grows to 50 metres in height. Rimu usually favours better drained sites than kahikatea, but does grow in poorly drained soils in Westland.
Rimu can live for more than 1,000 years. A life-span of 550–650 years is more common, as old trees become susceptible to uprooting in strong winds. Seedlings will not grow in deep shade or on open, exposed sites. Mature trees often support a crop of perching plants on their upper branches. For example, northern rātā often starts life as a young seedling high up in the crown of a mature rimu.
When young, rimu has weeping branchlets, but these become long, drooping branches when the tree matures. Its leaves are small, scale-like, and yellow-green. When fully grown it sheds large flakes of bark, leaving a wavy pattern on the trunk.
Pollen and seeds are produced by male and female trees respectively. Seeds take about 18 months to ripen. Each black seed sits on a red, fleshy receptacle which is eaten by birds or falls to the ground. Heavy seed crops occur every few years.
Rimu was the principal native tree milled following European settlement. Peak production occurred just after the Second World War, to meet the great demand for new houses. The reddish-brown timber was used for framing, weatherboards, flooring, doors and panelling. Today, recycled rimu is popular for furniture.
James Cook’s crew made rimu beer when they were at Dusky Sound, Fiordland, in March 1773:
Make a strong brew of water and small branches of rimu
and mānuka, boiling for two to four hours, or until the
bark strips off the branches easily.
Take the branches out of the copper and put in molasses or sugar, 10 gallons of molasses to 240 gallons of beer. Bring the brew back to boil, then put it into casks with an equal quantity of cold water. When the whole is milk-warm, add yeast and leave for a few days. 1
New Zealand’s tallest tree, kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), reaches 60 metres in height. It grows throughout New Zealand on moist, fertile soils, and is the dominant tree of swampy lowland areas. Today, kahikatea grows in fewer places than it did at the time of European settlement, as the land it grew on made productive farmland.
Seedling foliage consists of narrow little leaves, lying flat in two rows on thin branches. Adults have scale-leaves, similar to those of rimu, but often bright green or blue-green. Kahikatea has ascending branchlets, in marked contrast to rimu’s long weeping branchlets.
Kahikatea has separate male and female trees. It produces purple-black seeds above a fleshy orange-red stalk. Like rimu, it has good and poor seed years. Tūī, bellbirds, kākā and kererū disperse the seeds. Its seedlings need a lot of sunlight, and grow fastest in the open or lightly shaded sites.
The creamy-white wood of kahikatea is light and easily worked, but not durable. It was used for canoes by Māori, and with a plentiful supply of kahikatea growing on stream and river banks there was no shortage of suitable trunks to choose from.
Kahikatea forests were felled to provide valuable land for dairy farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The forests also provided the containers in which dairy products were exported to Britain. Because kahikatea wood is odourless and does not taint butter or cheese, a large number of trees were milled and turned into butter boxes and cheese crates. Kahikatea timber was also used for fascia boards on houses, scaffold planks, and for boat building.
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.
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.
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 (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 (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 (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 (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.
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 (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.
The celery pines (Phyllocladus genus) are long-lived trees and shrubs. Apart from some tiny scales on young twigs or needle-like leaves on the seedlings, they lack leaves. What appear to be their leaves are in fact small, flattened twigs. These are called phylloclades, and resemble celery leaves. These function as leaves and carry out photosynthesis.
In the past, celery pines were grouped into the podocarp family, but today most botanists place them in their own family – Phyllocladaceae. New Zealand has three species, another grows in Tasmania, and one is found in the New Guinea–Philippines region.
Tānekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) is a medium-sized tree found in lowland forests in the northern half of the North Island and the northern tip of the South Island. It grows on a range of well-drained soils, reaching 20 metres in height and 1 metre in diameter on fertile sites. Tānekaha appears in the early stages of forest succession. It regenerates well in the shelter of mānuka and kānuka scrub.
Its branchlets bear two rows of phylloclades with toothed margins. The female cones form on the edges of the phylloclades.
Its wood is the strongest and most flexible of the native conifers. Māori used the white timber for their canoes and houses, and for koikoi (double-pointed spears). They also produced a red dye from its bark. Early European settlers used its wood for marine piles, bridges, railway sleepers, and for props in the northern coal and gold mines.
Toatoa (Phyllocladus toatoa) is a comparatively small tree up to 15 metres in height, with distinctly whorled branches. Trees that grow in the open are conical in outline.
It is common on infertile soils in central forests of the North Island, where it is usually found as a subcanopy tree. It is rare in Northland forests. Toatoa regenerates freely in cut-over or damaged forests, and can live for 500 years.
The wedge-shaped phylloclades of this species are larger, thicker and more leathery than those of the more widespread tānekaha. The phylloclades are blue-green when young. Seeds ripen in the season in which they form, and are spread by birds attracted to their fleshy white stalks. Toatoa forms hybrids with tānekaha and mountain toatoa.
Mountain toatoa (Phyllocladus alpinus) is the commonest celery pine in New Zealand, growing from Hokianga in the north to Bluff in the south. It ranges in size from a small shrub in alpine scrub, where it is most common, to a tree up to 9 metres tall in upland forest.
It has single leathery, blue-green phylloclades at the ends of short branchlets. The phylloclades are variable in shape, 1–4 centimetres long, and lobed.
Dawson, John, and Rob Lucas. Nature guide to the New Zealand forest. Auckland: Godwit, 2000.
Ecroyd, C. E. ‘Biological flora of New Zealand 8. Agathis australis (D. Don) Lindl. (Araucariaceae) kauri.’ New Zealand Journal of Botany 20 (1982): 17–36.
Ogden, John, and Glenn H. Stewart. ‘Community dynamics of the New Zealand conifers.’ In Ecology of the southern conifers, ed. by Neal J. Enright and Robert S. Hill, 81–119. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995.
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