Story: Shrubs and small trees of the forest

New Zealand’s forests contain numerous small shrubs and trees, some showy and others modest – the small-leaved, twiggy types can be difficult to tell apart. Some are juvenile forms of trees that will look quite different as adults. Many species are popular garden plants.

Story by Joanna Orwin
Main image: Lowland horopito

Story summary

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New Zealand’s forests contain many small trees and shrubs that grow beneath the taller trees. They also grow in more open places where forest was cleared from the land and has now started to grow back.

Forest shrubs and small trees show great variety in their height, leaves, bark, flowers, and fruit.

Juvenile forms

Some New Zealand trees don’t look much like trees at all when they are young (juvenile). Instead, they look like shrubs, with small leaves and a tangle of twiggy branches. One theory is that the young plants evolved this dense, shrubby form so that they were not likely to be eaten by moa (large, flightless birds, now extinct).

Sometimes trees that look very similar when they are young shrubs are actually not very closely related at all. It can be difficult to tell different species apart when they are young.

Many uses

People have found many uses for the small trees and shrubs of the forest. When making fire by rubbing sticks on a board, Māori used kaikōmako for the sticks and māhoe for the base board. Māori also used the bark of lacebark and ribbonwood trees to make fishing nets, and leaves of cabbage trees to make ropes, mats and baskets. They ate berries of the kōtukutuku, which early European settlers made into jam and puddings.

Interesting smells

Hūpiro is also known as stinkwood – when its leaves are crushed they release a smell like rotten eggs. Crushing the leaves of the lemonwood (tarata) tree gives a pleasant lemon smell. Many trees and shrubs, such as kaikōmako and akiraho, have fragrant flowers.

Food for birds

Some of the small trees of the forest provide native birds with their favourite foods. Birds like to eat the berries of coprosma shrubs and trees and the fruit of the kawakawa tree. The fruit of the kaikōmako tree attracts bellbirds, and the juicy red fruit of porokaiwhiri – also known as pigeonwood – attracts kererū (New Zealand pigeons).

Garden trees

Attractive small shrubs and trees are not just found in the forest. Many are popular garden plants. Lancewoods, lacebarks, ribbonwoods and pittosporums are often grown in gardens around New Zealand. One of the prettiest and best-loved garden trees is the kōwhai, with its delicate yellow flowers and weeping branches.

How to cite this page:

Joanna Orwin, 'Shrubs and small trees of the forest', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Joanna Orwin, published 24 September 2007, updated 1 July 2015