Pūriri (Vitex lucens), a stout forest tree that can reach 23 metres high, often has a gnarled trunk, up to 1.5 metres in diameter, which supports its spreading crown. It belongs to the Verbena family, a large group of tropical and subtropical plants that includes teak.
Pūriri grows in coastal and lowland forest in the northern half of the North Island. It often grows on fertile soils, so large areas were cleared by European settlers for farmland. Since then, it has been widely planted as an ornamental tree in frost-free areas.
Large pūriri were sometimes used by northern Māori to bury the dead. In Hukutaia Domain, Ōpōtiki, an ancient pūriri with a hollow trunk was the last resting place for the bones of important people. The tree, named Taketakerau, has a circumference of about 22 metres, and is over 23 metres high.
Pūriri has glossy, dark green leaves made up of five leaflets. It is one of the few forest trees that have colourful flowers – they are deep pink to dark red, about 3 centimetres long, tubular, full of nectar, and clustered in groups of 12 to 15. Birds feed on the nectar and spread pollen from flower to flower. Pūriri mostly flowers during winter and ripens its cherry-like fruit in summer, but it usually has a few flowers and ripe fruit year round.
The tree is host to the larvae of New Zealand’s largest moth – the pūriri moth (Aenetus virescens), which digs long burrows in the trunks.
Pūriri wood is greenish-brown in colour, often with brown and yellow streaks. It is extremely hard, dense and heavy, and was used for railway sleepers, posts, poles and piles.
Taraire (Beilschmiedia tarairi) and its southern relative, tawa, are species of a widespread genus of the tropics and subtropics. They belong to the Laurel family.
Taraire grows in coastal and lowland forest of the northern North Island. It was a common canopy tree in kauri forest, growing up to 22 metres tall in fertile places. Taraire’s thick, large leaves are dark green and glossy above and blue-white underneath, with many brown hairs along the veins.
Insects pollinate its small green clusters of flowers, and the dark purple plum-sized fruits are eaten by kererū, the native pigeon.
Taraire’s light wood is not durable in the open, so it does not have many uses.
Tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa) is the main canopy tree of lowland forests with fertile soils in the central and southern North Island. It also grows in the coastal forests of Nelson and Marlborough. Tawa is taller than taraire, growing up to 30 metres tall. It has narrow, drooping, willow-like leaves, yellow-green on the upper surface and blue-white underneath. The young leaves that appear in spring are orange-brown, giving the trees a distinct olive hue at that time.
Tawa’s fruits look like olives, ripening from green to dark purple in early autumn. They are eaten – and their seeds spread – by kererū, the native pigeon.
Māori steamed and ate the seed kernels of tawa and taraire. They used tawa’s straight-grained timber for making taoroa (long bird spears).
Tawa’s attractive white wood has been used for flooring, furniture, interior décor and clothes pegs. In the 1970s it was chosen for the floors, wall panels and furniture of the first four floors of the Beehive, the executive wing of New Zealand’s Parliament buildings.
Tītoki (Alectryon excelsus) is widespread on the coast and fertile lowlands of the North Island and northern South Island. It grows up to 15 metres tall. Tītoki has large compound leaves made up of four to six pairs of oblong leaflets. Its bunches of tiny flowers have no petals – they are a ring of reddish-purple stamens. When mature, tītoki’s woody fruit capsules split open to show a shiny black seed, partly covered in scarlet flesh. The ripe fruits are eaten by birds. Māori extracted oil from its seed to use as ointment.
Although tītoki timber is strong, it is not durable in the open, and was little used.
A smaller subspecies (Alectryon excelsus subsp. grandis) grows on the Three Kings Islands. It is usually multi-trunked, with longer and wider leaflets than mainland tītoki.