Story: Conifers

Conifers (trees that reproduce by means of cones) are a diverse group, including the giants of the forest – kauri and kahikatea – as well as the shrub-like pygmy pine. They are useful trees, and their hardy woods have been fashioned into boats, houses and wharf piles.

Story by Maggy Wassilieff
Main image: A mature rimu towering above a rainforest canopy

Story summary

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What are conifers?

Conifers are shrubs and trees that grow cones. Male cones make pollen, and female cones make seeds. When ripe, some cones split open and release their seeds, which scatter in the wind. Other cones rely on birds to carry the fertilised seeds.


New Zealand conifers have green leaves all year round. Some leaves are shaped like needles, others are like tiny fish scales. The wood of conifers is usually quite soft.

There are 20 types of conifer in New Zealand. These are some of the best known:


This giant of the forest can live for centuries. It grows in the wild only in the upper North Island. Its sticky gum was once used for varnishes. Māori built war canoes from the tall, straight trunks. Europeans milled the wood for houses and boats.


This is the most common conifer in New Zealand. It is tall with long, drooping branches. It was the main native tree milled by Europeans in the 20th century, mostly for building houses.


This is New Zealand’s tallest tree. It reaches 60 metres high, and grows throughout the country. But in the past, many kahikatea forests were cut down to make way for farmland. The wood was then made into crates for exporting cheese and butter.


This large tree grows in most parts of the country except Stewart Island. The bark peels off in strips and the leaves are thin, like needles. The hard-wearing wood was popular with Māori for making canoes, houses, carvings and musical instruments. Europeans used it for railway sleepers, wharf and house piles, and telegraph poles.


The seeds of this large tree look like plums, and are an important food for native birds. The tree grows slowly, to about 30 metres, and can live for 1,000 years.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Conifers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 September 2007