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Tall broadleaf trees

by  Maggy Wassilieff

Splashes of colour from rātā and pōhutukawa flowers; the spiky forms of nīkau palms; karaka’s orange berries and shiny leaves. These are some of New Zealand’s most distinctive tall broadleaf trees – evergreen flowering trees that make up the forest canopy.


Overview

What are tall broadleaf trees?

New Zealand’s tall broadleaf trees are evergreen flowering trees, normally more than 15 metres in height. The term broadleaf distinguishes flowering trees from conifers, which have narrow or scale leaves.

Broadleaf trees grow in conifer–broadleaf forests throughout New Zealand – mostly in the forest canopy, or occasionally emerging through it.

Southern beech (Nothofagus) trees are also broadleaf trees, but grow mainly in beech forests, and are usually distinguished from other broadleaf species.

Broadleaf is also the common name for one tree species, Griselinia littoralis.

Origins

All of New Zealand’s native tall broadleaf tree species are endemic (naturally found nowhere else). However, they have close relatives (in the same genus) in other countries. Plant scientists believe that some New Zealand trees are descended from the ancient forests of the supercontinent Gondwana. Others were more recent immigrants, from tropical forests north of New Zealand.

Reproduction

Most of the tall broadleaf trees have inconspicuous green or white flowers, which are pollinated by insects. The exceptions are rātā, pōhutukawa, pūriri and rewarewa, whose showy red or pink flowers are pollinated by birds and insects.

Native birds are important seed dispersers for most of the tall broadleaf trees. After they have fed on the trees' fleshy fruits, they expel the seeds at a new location.

Life expectancy

New Zealand’s tall broadleaf trees do not live as long as the conifers they share the forests with. Most live 200–400 years, while conifers can live 600–1,200 years.

Threats to trees

After Māori arrived in New Zealand, they burnt large areas of forest. Later, European settlers cleared much of the remaining lowland forest for farming. Many tall broadleaf trees disappeared from areas where they formerly grew. Forests were also logged for timber from the 19th century.

Browsing by introduced mammals such as possums, deer and goats has harmed trees. Mammal predators have stopped trees regenerating, by killing the birds that disperse seed. Rodents also eat flowers, fruits and seeds.


Tree rātā

Myrtle family

Tree rātā belong to the Myrtle family (Myrtaceae), a large family of flowering plants that includes pōhutukawa, gum trees, feijoa, guava, clove and allspice. New Zealand has 19 species in this family:

  • trees: rātā species, pōhutukawa, kānuka, swamp maire
  • shrubs: mānuka, rōhutu, ramarama
  • vines: six species of climbing rātā.

Metrosideros species

Rātā and pōhutukawa are species of Metrosideros. This is the most widespread genus of trees in New Zealand, and is found from the subtropical Kermadec Islands to the subantarctic Auckland islands, 500 kilometres south of the mainland.

Of New Zealand’s Metrosideros species, six grow into trees and six are vines. Their flowers are a mass of brightly coloured stamens around a cup containing nectar, which attracts insects, birds, lizards and bats. The fruit is a dry capsule containing hundreds of tiny seeds. The seeds need light, and germinate in open sites. All species can produce roots from their stems.

Northern rātā

The giant northern rātā (Metrosideros robusta) can grow over 40 metres tall. It was once widespread in wetter areas of the North Island, and the north-west South Island.

Although it can begin life on the ground, it usually starts out as an epiphyte (perching plant), high in the canopy of a host tree. As it grows it sends roots down to the ground. These aerial roots become thicker and woody, and may join to form one or several trunks. These support the northern rātā’s spreading crown when the host tree dies.

Northern rātā’s clusters of attractive flowers look like those of southern rātā and pōhutukawa, but are a darker red-brown. Its leaves have a notch at their tip. The very dense wood is dark red-brown. It makes excellent fuel, and will burn when green.

Northern rātā is vulnerable to browsing by possums. Many trees died in the Ruahine and Aorangi ranges as possum numbers increased in their forests.

Bartlett’s rātā

Bartlett's rātā (Metrosideros bartlettii) is one of New Zealand’s rarest plants. It was only discovered in 1975 near Te Paki, Northland, where there are 34 adult trees. Like northern rātā, it usually starts life perching high in the canopy of a host tree and grows into a tall tree. Unlike other tree rātā, it has white flowers and white, papery bark.

Southern rātā

Southern rātā (Metrosideros umbellata) does not grow as tall as northern rātā, usually only reaching 15 metres. It is widespread in the western South Island, on Stewart Island, and on the coastal edge of the Auckland Islands. In the North Island, it grows on the high peaks of Northland and Coromandel. Southern rātā tolerates most soil types, including the limestone and toxic soils around Nelson.

It is easily distinguished from the other tree rātā by its shiny leaves, which have many oil glands and a pointed tip.


Pōhutukawa

Summer-flowering pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is New Zealand’s iconic Christmas tree. Around December, crowns of pōhutukawa are covered in clusters of bright red to dark crimson flowers.

Pōhutukawa usually grow as multi-trunked spreading trees that occasionally reach 25 metres in height. Their trunks and branches are sometimes festooned with bunches of hanging aerial roots. The leathery leaves are oblong, dark green on top and covered in dense white hairs underneath.

Crimson Christmas

Project Crimson is a charitable conservation trust that works to protect New Zealand's native Christmas trees – pōhutukawa and rātā. Since it was set up in 1990, volunteers have planted hundreds of thousands of trees.

Naturally, pōhutukawa grew around the northern North Island’s coast, as far south as northern Taranaki in the west and Māhia Peninsula in the east. It has been widely planted around the coast further south. Trees growing inland near Rotorua and Lake Taupō may occur there naturally, or may have been planted by Māori.

In its natural northern range, pōhutukawa forms the main type of coastal forest. Inland, it grows as a minor part of kauri forest. Pōhutukawa can act as a pioneer plant, growing on bare ground – it was one of the first plants to grow on lava flows on Rangitoto Island, a 600-year-old volcano in the Hauraki Gulf.

Many stands of pōhutukawa have been damaged and killed by possums eating the foliage.

Pōhutukawa’s strong, durable wood was sometimes used for boat building. Its bent roots and branches were used to make knees – strengthening structures in boat hulls.

Kermadec pōhutukawa

Kermadec pōhutukawa (Metrosideros kermadacensis) is the dominant tree of the Kermadec Islands, more than 1,000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. It has been widely planted in mainland New Zealand, where it grows as a compact tree up to 15 metres tall. It has smaller, rounder leaves than New Zealand pōhutukawa, and flowers sporadically through the year.

Hybrids

Tree rātā and pōhutukawa can breed with each other and form hybrids. Hybrids of northern rātā and pōhutukawa are common around Lake Rotorua and on Rangitoto Island. Northern and southern rātā hybrids grow on the Marchant Ridge in the Tararua Range, on Great and Little Barrier islands, and in north-west Nelson.

Where mainland and Kermadec pōhutukawa are planted together, they often hybridise.


Trees of fertile lowlands

Pūriri

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.

Burial trees

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

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

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

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.


Forest giants

Rewarewa

Mature rewarewa (Knightia excelsa), also called New Zealand honeysuckle, is recognisable from its tall columnar form, similar to a poplar. It is one of New Zealand’s taller trees, growing to over 35 metres in height. Rewarewa is in the Protea family – a large group of plants, many of them found in South Africa and Australia.

Rewarewa grows in lowland forest throughout the North Island, and in the Marlborough Sounds at the South Island’s north-eastern tip. It is common in regenerating forest.

Juvenile leaves grow to 30 centimetres long and are thin and coarsely toothed. Adult leaves are thick, bluntly toothed and only half as long. In spring, rewarewa has clusters of dark reddish-brown bottle-brush flowers. When open, the petals coil into tight spirals, exposing long styles (the female part of the flower). The flowers are pollinated by tūī and bellbirds, which drink the nectar. The fruits are dry, brown capsules that split open to release small winged seeds.

Rewarewa wood has prominent rays. When cut on the radius it produces attractive, silvery red-brown timber, used in inlay and decorative work. In the past it was used to make bush tramways, brake blocks and swingletrees (crossbars between a horse and vehicle).

Pukatea

Pukatea (Laurelia novae-zealandiae) is a tall tree, up to 35 metres in height, that grows in swampy areas. Plank buttresses (flanges at the base of the trunk) help support it in soft ground, and above-ground breathing roots supply air. Pukatea grows in lowland swamp forest throughout the North Island, often along with the tall conifer, kahikatea. In the eastern South Island, it is confined to northern Marlborough, but in the west it grows as far south as Fiordland.

Pukatea’s leaves are 40–75 millimetres long, oblong, serrated, dark green and glossy above, paler below. The flowers are very small, with separate male and female flowers on a single tree. Its fruits, which are dispersed by wind, are 25 millimetres long and clad in silky hairs.

Pukatea timber has occasionally been used in boat building, especially planking in dinghies.

Black maire

One of New Zealand’s best firewoods, black maire (Nestegis cunninghamii) has all but disappeared from the North Island forests where it was once common. It belongs to the olive family, and is the largest of four New Zealand maire species. It grows to 23 metres in height with a stout trunk up to 1.5 metres in diameter. Black maire is found in lowland and mountain forest throughout the North Island, and on the northern tip of the South Island.

Juvenile black maire have spindly stems with long, narrow, leathery leaves. Adults’ leaves are long and tapering at the outer end, and the tree has a sturdy, straight trunk. Its tiny cream flowers grow on hairy spikes, with male and female flowers on separate trees. Black maire’s egg-shaped fruits are 1 centimetre long, red and fleshy.

Black maire has dense, even-grained timber, dark brown in colour and often streaked with black. Māori used it for digging sticks and mallets, and as wedges for splitting wood. In the 1900s boatbuilders also favoured black maire timber for their mallets. Black maire burns slowly with great heat, and between the 1920s and 1960s most accessible stands were felled for firewood.

The timber was also used for framing railway carriages and machinery, and building bridges. In recent years it has been used for woodturning and specialist items such as golf-putter heads and woodwind instruments.

Hīnau

Hīnau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) is a forest tree up to 20 metres tall (usually less), with a broad spreading crown and a trunk of a metre or more in diameter. It grows in lowland and mountain forests up to 600 metres above sea level throughout much of New Zealand, but is absent from Stewart Island and rare in the eastern South Island.

Juvenile hīnau leaves are longer and narrower than adult leaves. They look similar to juvenile leaves of rewarewa, but have edges that roll under. Hīnau has attractive hanging clumps of bell-shaped white flowers in late spring, and 1.5-centimetre-long, oval purple fruits at the end of summer. Birds eat the fruit and distribute the seed.

Māori processed the fruits into a coarse type of flour, which they baked into cakes. They also used the bark to make a blue-black dye.

Hīnau has a white, medium-density sapwood that was seldom used in the past. One specialist use was for the runners on Antarctic sleds. Its durable dark heartwood was used instead of tōtara for house piles and fence posts.


Coastal trees

Karaka

Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) grows to 20 metres tall and has a spreading canopy of dark green, glossy leaves. It is found in coastal and lowland forest throughout the North Island and northern South Island, and on the Chatham Islands, where it is called kopi. It is believed that before people arrived in New Zealand, karaka grew only in northern New Zealand, but Māori planted it in other areas. It was an important food – the large seeds within the fruit are poisonous when raw, but are safe to eat after soaking in water and baking.

Karaka regenerates prolifically. In some forest reserves of the southern North Island – and in Hawaii, where it was introduced for timber – it has become a serious weed, choking out other species.

Kohekohe

New Zealand’s only plant from the tropical mahogany family, kohekohe (Dysoxylum spectabile) grows to 15 metres tall, with a broad spreading canopy. It is found in coastal and lowland forest of the North Island and northern tip of the South Island. Like many tropical plants, it has large compound leaves and flower stalks that grow directly from its trunk and branches in winter.

Kohekohe fruits take about a year to ripen, and look like bunches of green grapes for much of this time. Eventually they turn brown, then split open, exposing three seeds in a bright orange fleshy covering. The seeds are eaten by large forest birds. Seedlings regenerate well under shade in the absence of possums, a major browsing pest of this species.

Nīkau

Nīkau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the world’s southernmost palm, growing in coastal and lowland forest throughout the North Island, as far south as Banks Peninsula on the South Island’s east coast and Ōkārito on the west, and on the Chatham Islands.

Nīkau grows to 18 metres in height and is a canopy or subcanopy tree. Its single trunk bears rings of leaf scars, formed when old leaves are shed. The leaves are up to 3 metres long, and are made of many narrow, metre-long leaflets. They form an ascending crown above the trunk’s bulbous top. In summer, nīkau produces a much-branched flower stalk studded with little pink flowers. Its berries take about a year to ripen. Once ripe, they provide abundant food for forest birds, especially kererū (native pigeons), nīkau’s main seed disperser.

Nīkau may be over 50 years old before it forms an above-ground stem, and 90 years old before it flowers and fruits. Botanists estimate that it lives for 200 years.

Māori used nīkau leaves for thatching the roofs of their whare (dwellings) and for weaving.

Tawapou

Growing to 15 metres in height, tawapou (Pouteria costata) only occurs in northern coastal forests. It has shiny green, leathery leaves that exude a milky fluid when torn. Tawapou’s flowers are tiny, only a few millimetres long – they seem disproportionate to the big orange berries that develop from them. Inside the berry are several shiny black seeds, which were used for necklaces by Māori. Kiore (Polynesian rats) eat the berries and have stopped the tree from regenerating in some areas.


Trees of the high country

Kāmahi

Perhaps the commonest tree in New Zealand, kāmahi (Weinmannia racemosa) is abundant in lowland, upland and subalpine forests and regenerating shrubland, from the central North Island southwards to Stewart Island. It often begins life as an epiphyte (perching plant) on the trunks of wheki tree ferns (Dicksonia squarrosa). It eventually grows to 25 metres tall, usually with multiple trunks. Adult leaves are single, about 7 centimetres long, and dark green with toothed margins. Juvenile leaves consist of three leaflets, often reddish in colour.

Kāmahi produces spikes of nectar-rich white flowers each summer and dry brown fruit capsules in autumn. Its seeds are tiny and wind-dispersed. Possums eat the leaves and flowers, leading to the death of extensive areas of kāmahi.

Māori made a dark red dye from the bark, and used it to colour flax mats and cloaks. It also acted as a preservative for fishing lines and other items. European settlers used the bark for tanning leather. Kāmahi is an important tree for beekeepers. Its abundant nectar produces a rich golden honey, much of it from forests on the South Island’s West Coast. In the past, the timber has been used for fence posts and house piles, but it is not very durable.

Tōwai

Tōwai (Weinmannia silvicola), a northern relative of kāmahi, is found in forests around Auckland and Northland. It grows up to 15 metres high. Unlike kāmahi, it has compound adult leaves, consisting of adjacent pairs of leaflets with a terminal leaflet.

Broadleaf

Along with kāmahi, broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis) is one of the commonest trees in upland forests, and also occurs as an understorey tree in lowland forests. Broadleaf grows to 15 metres tall, and has thick, glossy, oval yellow-green leaves. It bears clusters of tiny green flowers in summer and small blue-black berries in winter. Broadleaf is browsed heavily by deer and goats.

Broadleaf is known by various Māori names, including pāpāumu in the North Island and kāpuka in the southern South Island. Its hard, durable wood was sometimes used for fence posts.

Puka, shining broadleaf

Puka or shining broadleaf (Griselinia lucida) looks like broadleaf, but has larger, shiny green leaves with uneven leaf bases that make them look asymmetrical. Puka often begins life as an epiphyte on large forest trees such as hīnau or rimu. Mature specimens have grooved roots, which grow down to the ground.

Free-standing plants grow up to 10 metres tall and develop wide, spreading crowns. Puka is found throughout the North Island in lowland and coastal forest, and in coastal locations in the South Island.

Puka is also the common name of another, unrelated, tree – the large-leaved Meryta sinclairii.

Tāwheowheo

Quintinia or tāwheowheo (Quintinia serrata) is an extremely variable plant. Some scientists consider it to be three separate species, calling two of its forms Quintinia acutifolia and Q. elliptica. Tāwheowheo occurs in two distinct regions of New Zealand: it grows in lowland and mountain forests in the northern half of North Island, is absent from the southern North Island, then reappears in the west of the South Island as far south as Fox Glacier.

Tāwheowheo grows to about 12 metres in height and has mottled, narrow leaves with wavy edges. It produces 5–10-centimetre spikes of tiny cream flowers in spring, and dry brown seed capsules in mid-summer.


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How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Tall broadleaf trees', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tall-broadleaf-trees/print (accessed 19 May 2019)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 Sep 2007