Lacebarks and ribbonwoods mostly grow in groves on open sites such as old landslips, forest margins, and stream banks. Some have distinct juvenile forms and some are deciduous (shedding their leaves annually). Most have fairly restricted natural distributions, but grow more widely because of cultivation in gardens. The lacebarks all have the same Māori name, houhere, which is also used in the name of their genus, Hoheria.
Some of the showiest native trees are the lacebarks, which grow clusters of large sweetly-scented white flowers. Closely related, lookalike ribbonwood can be told apart from lacebarks in spring – it has much smaller yellowish or greenish flower clusters.
This species (Hoheria angustifolia) has small, narrow-toothed leaves, a bushy divaricating juvenile form, and often a column-like adult form. Narrow-leaved houhere has the widest natural distribution of the lacebarks, growing mainly on lowland eastern sites. In the North Island, it is common only in the south, and is sparse in Northland and the Waikato. In the South Island, it is widespread east of the Southern Alps. It flowers throughout summer and produces its winged yellow fruits in autumn.
Lacebarks and ribbonwoods are named for their rough bark that peels off to reveal tough net-like or fibrous layers. This material was plaited by Māori into ropes for fishing nets.
Māori experimented with making paper cloth (aute) from the inner bark, and European settlers used it to make ribbons for trimming hats, bonnets and dresses.
Long-leaved lacebark (H. sexstylosa) has much longer and more coarsely toothed leaves than narrow-leaved lacebark. It forms a small erect tree with drooping foliage. The juvenile form has interlaced weeping branches and small rounded leaves. In the North Island, it grows naturally from the northern Waikato and Coromandel Peninsula to the southern coast. In the South Island, it occurs naturally in north-west Nelson, inland Marlborough, and Banks Peninsula, but has spread throughout the island from cultivated specimens. It flowers in late summer and autumn.
A closely related species, H. ovata, grows naturally only on the West Coast, from north-west Nelson to at least Greymouth. It has the appearance of a hybrid between H. sexstylosa and H. populnea.
The tallest lacebark (H. populnea) grows to 12 metres and has large, semi-deciduous, leathery, oval leaves, often with purplish backs. Its small juvenile leaves are variable in size and shape, growing on divaricating branches. This species is widely cultivated and is now found naturalised throughout the country. Its natural distribution is restricted to the northern North Island – from Te Paki southwards to the northern Waikato and the Coromandel. It flowers in autumn and produces ripe fruits in winter.
These two fully deciduous species, with large flowers and large heart-shaped leaves, form conspicuous groves. They grow mostly in the mountain forests of the South Island. Hoheria glabrata grows mainly west of the Southern Alps, and H. lyallii mainly east, but they overlap in central Otago. H. lyallii is also found locally in north-west Nelson and on Mt Taranaki/Mt Egmont. The mountain lacebarks flower in summer.
Mānatu – lowland ribbonwood
Mānatu, or ribbonwood (Plagianthus regius), grows naturally in lowland and coastal forests throughout New Zealand (although it is never common). It is the largest of New Zealand’s deciduous trees, reaching 17 metres in height. Mānatu has a bushy, divaricating juvenile form that often persists at the base of adult trees. Its adult leaves are similar to those of long-leaved lacebark, but not as shiny. Mānatu flowers in spring, and its male and female flowers usually grow on separate trees.