In most lowland to montane native forests, you will come across some small trees that look alike but are unrelated. They mostly grow to about 10 metres in height and have oblong or egg-shaped green leaves with serrated or wavy edges. They all grow clusters of small cream or greenish-white flowers, which are followed by berries that are attractive to birds. For all but one (putaputawētā), male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Despite their similarities, these small trees have distinctive characteristics that make them easy to identify.
Māui and fire-making
Tormented by the trickster Māui, the fire goddess Mahuika set the forest on fire. In danger of being burnt alive, Māui called to his ancestor Tāwhaki for help. When Tāwhaki sent a great flood to put out the flames, Mahuika flung the seed of fire high into some trees. Two of these trees were māhoe and kaikōmako, which thereafter provided the main woods used by Māori for fire-making by friction.
Māhoe – whiteywood
Māhoe (Melicytus ramiflorus), one of the most common subcanopy trees, is found throughout New Zealand. It often forms multiple small trunks, and has distinctive white bark, which is covered with white lichen. Māhoe branches are brittle. In late spring and early summer, the greenish-white flowers appear on bare twigs, below the leaves. They are followed by conspicuous violet-blue berries in late summer and autumn.
Māhoe has several shrubby relatives, two of which are forest dwellers. Large-leaved māhoe (M. macrophyllus) is restricted to kauri forests from Auckland northwards. It looks similar to māhoe but has brown bark. Māhoe wao (M. lanceolatus), with long narrow leaves and brown bark, is found from Whangārei southwards.
Māori frequently used māhoe’s soft wood as the base board for fire-making, because with friction it quickly forms flammable dust.
Porokaiwhiri – pigeonwood
Pigeonwood (Hedycarya arborea) grows in moist conditions from the Three Kings Islands (north of the North Island) to as far south as Banks Peninsula and Milford Sound. The tallest of the group of lookalike subcanopy trees, pigeonwood often reaches 15 metres. Its shiny, leathery, saw-toothed leaves have reddish or brown mid-ribs. Clusters of small flowers, produced in spring, are followed in summer by oblong juicy red fruit as large as cherries. Kererū (New Zealand pigeons) often gorge on these fruit until they are unable to fly.
Putaputawētā – marbleleaf
Putaputawētā (Carpodetus serratus) grows throughout New Zealand and is often found on the edge of forest clearings and on stream banks. It is easily recognised by its small, white-mottled, green serrated leaves. Young plants sometimes adopt a tangled divaricating form, which means they have small leaves and densely interlaced twiggy stems or branches. A prolific flowerer throughout spring and summer, it has fragrant white flowers of both sexes on the same tree. The flowers are followed by black fruit in autumn. The tree’s Māori name refers to the presence of wētā in the pūriri moth larvae tunnels that often scar its trunk.
Kaikōmako (Pennantia corymbosa) reaches a height of 12 metres and is found throughout both main islands. Its distinctive juvenile form, with interlacing tangled twigs and small wedge-shaped leaves, bears no resemblance to the adult tree. The sweet-smelling white flowers produced in summer form large flat clusters at the tips of branches. In autumn bellbirds are attracted to the black fruit, giving the tree its Māori name of bellbird food.
Hard kaikōmako wood was used by Māori as rubbing sticks for fire-making.
Growing throughout New Zealand, māpou (Myrsine australis) has young red branchlets and light green wavy-edged leaves splotched with red oil glands. Its little white flowers grow on bare twigs below the leaves, and are followed by small round black fruits. Flowering occurs during the summer–autumn period, with berries ripening in the following spring–autumn.
A relative, toro (M. salicina), is also common in the North Island and the top half of the South Island. It has long, willow-like leaves.