Some of New Zealand’s distinctive grass trees look rather like small-leaved cabbage trees. Others have conifer-like needle leaves, but they are all actually members of the heath family. The forest grass trees are few in number but have many relatives that are common components in subalpine shrublands. Also known as turpentine bushes, these range from tree species to prostrate moss-like cushions. Many dracophyllums are closely related and difficult to distinguish. They are summer flowering and produce dry seed capsules in autumn.
Three forest grass trees have distributions in the North or South islands, or both, and two have restricted local distributions – Dracophyllum townsonii in south-west Nelson and northern Westland, and D. fiordense in south-west Otago.
The most widespread grass tree is īnanga (Dracophyllum longifolium). Various forms of this needle-leaved tree grow from coastal forest to subalpine scrubland, from East Cape southwards to Stewart Island and on the subantarctic islands. It can grow up to 12 metres high and has small attractive white flowers.
Growing in coastal, lowland and montane forest from North Cape south to Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki, neinei (D. latifolium) forms a small tree up to 6 metres high with upturned candelabra-like branches. These bear tufts of long leaves that taper from broad leaf sheaths to fine points and have finely toothed margins. Slender pyramids of small reddish flowers are carried above the leaf tufts.
A larger tree than neinei, mountain neinei (D. traversii) has shaggy peeling bark, denser pyramids of flowers, and smooth-edged leaves. It grows to 13 metres in height. In the North Island, it is scattered in montane to subalpine forest from Waimā Forest south to near Taumarunui. In the South Island it grows only in north-west Nelson south to about Arthur’s Pass. Mountain neinei sometimes forms pure stands on ridges near the treeline, carpeting the forest floor with its dry, reddish-brown leaves.