Story: Southern beech forest

In 1850 a Dutch botanist recognised that beech trees in the southern hemisphere were different from those in the north. He named them Nothofagus, meaning false beech. Southern beech trees can be found on slopes around much of New Zealand; their inaccessibility means that many forests are still intact.

Story by Joanna Orwin
Main image: Mountain beech

Story summary

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Southern beeches are native to countries in the southern hemisphere. They are different from the beeches growing in the northern hemisphere, and have been given the scientific name Nothofagus, meaning false beech.

New Zealand beeches

New Zealand has four beech species and one subspecies:

  • Red beech is the largest, reaching 30 metres high, with a trunk up to 2 metres thick, topped with a massive crown of branches and leaves.
  • Hard beech grows as high as red beech, but its trunk is thinner.
  • Black beech reaches 25 metres high, and can grow in poor soils.
  • Mountain beech, a subspecies of black beech, is the smallest of New Zealand’s beeches, grows up to 15 metres tall, and can be found high on slopes.
  • Silver beech stands up to 25 metres high and grows in wet, mountainous areas.

Beech forests

Beech forests grow mainly on hills and mountains. Most native forests in the South Island contain beech trees, but only 40% of North Island forests do.

Beech forests can consist of one or more beech species. Beeches can also grow with other trees, forming mixed forests such as hard beech–kauri forest in the Auckland area, and beech–tawa forest in the central North Island.


Beech seedlings can live for many years in the shade of the forest without growing much. When older trees die, they leave gaps, so light can reach the seedlings on the forest floor. They can then begin to grow and replace the dead trees.

Food for animals

Beech trees provide food for many leaf-eating and wood-boring insects. South Island beeches are infested with scale insects, which produce honeydew – a sugary substance that is eaten by native insects, and birds such as tūī and bellbirds. Wasps are pests that take most of the honeydew, depriving the native animals of their food.

Using the timber

Beech timber is hard to saw, so was used less often then wood from other New Zealand trees. Beech has been used to build wharves, mines and houses. Nowadays, the timber is used for furniture, flooring and interior decoration.

Today there is little logging of southern beech forest.

How to cite this page:

Joanna Orwin, 'Southern beech forest', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Joanna Orwin, published 24 September 2007