Although New Zealand has a temperate climate, its lowland conifer–broadleaf forests have the layered structure of subtropical rainforests, with many small trees and shrubs growing below the main canopy. Even southern beech forests, which grow at higher altitudes and have a less complex structure, often have a dense understorey.
Several hundred species of small trees and shrubs grow in these forests. Although many belong to genera that are spread widely around the world, about 80% of them are endemic – they are found naturally only in New Zealand.
In general, small forest trees and shrubs become less varied and dense with increasing latitude and altitude. Larger-leaved, more tropical-looking species are gradually replaced by smaller-leaved species that are adapted to the cold. However, many small trees and shrubs are also among the first to grow in open ground or gaps in the forest, and can be found in abundance in young regenerating forest.
Some forest understorey species have growth forms that are unique to New Zealand: twiggy, small-leaved shrubs that look alike but are not related. About 14% of these lookalikes are actually juveniles, which grow into adult trees that look quite different – from the young version, and from each other.
The origins and purposes of these features have aroused much interest.
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.
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 (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.
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 (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.
Three unrelated trees or shrubs with large leaves are among the first plants to colonise bare ground created by events such as forest fires and landslides. These trees are found in forest and scrub throughout New Zealand. All three produce fruit that was valued by Māori and early European settlers.
The long black stems and heart-shaped light green leaves of wineberry (Aristotelia serrata) often form dense thickets in regenerating forest. It has clusters of attractive rose-pink flowers in spring, followed by red or black edible berries in summer.
Māori children used to feast on the berries, which were also squeezed and strained to make a sweet drink.
Groves of tree tutu (Coriaria arborea) can reach eight metres in height on open sites. Their egg-shaped, dark green leaves grow in opposite pairs on fluted stems. Shiny on top and dull underneath, they can look fern-like. During spring and summer tiny flowers, coloured cream to pink, hang from the branches in long clusters. Purple-black fruit form in late summer and autumn.
Both the seeds and sap of tutu are highly poisonous, resulting in many cattle deaths in the early days of European settlement. After removing the poisonous seeds, Māori prepared a drink from the fruit, which they often boiled with a type of seaweed (rimu). The resulting jelly (rehia) was then fermented.
Common in regenerating forest and along stream banks, tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata) is easily recognised by its peeling strips of cinnamon-orange bark and its purple-red flowers. These flowers appear in spring, some with bright blue pollen. Fuchsia is deciduous (shedding its leaves annually), which is unusual in New Zealand’s native trees. Some trees survive to a great age, forming gnarled trunks more than a metre across.
The purplish-black berry (kōnini) is sweet and juicy in summer. A favourite of Māori and kererū (New Zealand pigeons), and now possums, it was also used by European settlers to make jam and puddings.
Some of the related subtropical trees and shrubs found in New Zealand forests have strikingly different juvenile and adult forms. This is called heteroblasty. As adult trees, they all have rounded crowns with simple or compound finger-like leaves, male and female flowers on separate trees, and flat clusters of dark berries. Most have less common close relatives with which they often form hybrids. Horticultural varieties are popular garden plants.
Common throughout New Zealand, lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius) often forms patches in regenerating forest. Its easily recognised juvenile forms have tall, straight, unbranched stems up to 13 metres high. Long and narrow leathery mottled leaves hang from these stems like toothed umbrella ribs. This form persists for 15 to 20 years, until the growing tip begins to branch and the new leaves become shorter and less pendulous, forming a shaggy tuft. Eventually the tree develops simple oblong leaves and the rounded crown typical of this group. Adult lancewoods flower in late summer, and their purple berries ripen through the autumn.
P. ferox is a much less common type of lancewood, restricted to lowland forests in the two main islands. It has heavily toothed narrow juvenile leaves that are even more striking than those of P. crassifolius. The related shrubby P. linearis is found only on the western side of the Southern Alps.
Plants that change leaf and branch shape are common in New Zealand, though not elsewhere, as are those with a tangled (divaricating) form. It has been suggested that this was an adaptation to browsing by giant, flightless moa – dense, tangled plants would be difficult to eat. Once they have grown above the moa’s reach, they become larger-leaved adults. Another theory claims that such forms might have protected growing tips from wind, drought, and frost in ice ages. Alternatively, changing their form means that the plants can receive maximum light at different levels in the forest.
Haumakōroa (Raukaua simplex, formerly Pseudopanax simplex) is common from Thames southwards, in lowland to subalpine forests. Its shiny, deeply cut, three-lobed juvenile leaves change in adult trees to mostly simple leaves.
A close shrubby relative, R. anomalus, has the smallest leaves of this group, which also change from three-lobed in young plants to mostly simple in adults. But this species retains a divaricating growth form throughout its life.
Five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) and the lookalike tree orihou (P. colensoi) do not have obvious juvenile forms.
Five-finger, one of the most common forest trees, is found in the lowland forests and scrub of both main islands, though it is rare in the western South Island. It has the round head characteristic of the group, compound leaves (with three to eight leaflets or fingers), and sweetly scented flowers that are produced in winter. Its flattened purple-black berries ripen during summer.
Orihou grows throughout New Zealand, from sea level to the subalpine shrub zone. It is smaller than five-finger, and its compound leaves, which have fewer fingers (three to five), are almost without stalks.
Forming a shrub or small tree up to eight metres high, patē (Schefflera digitata) is the most tropical-looking of this group. It has large compound leaves, with as many as ten fingers, and large clusters of flowers. Patē is found only on moist sites, and along shady roadsides and stream banks. It produces long clusters of yellow-green flowers in late summer and early autumn, followed by bunches of black berries a few months later.
Different juvenile forms of patē are found only in the northern North Island, where young plants can have irregularly lobed leaves similar to those of haumakōroa.
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, 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.
Cabbage trees are a type of tree lily, like agave, yucca, and dracaena. Their tufted heads are familiar beacons in New Zealand landscapes.
Cabbage trees grow throughout the country, from sea level to about 1,000 metres, but are most common on the coast and lowlands. They grow singly or in groves on open forest margins as well as in swamps and along lake margins and river terraces. They often colonise openings in forests that have been created by disturbances, but they are eventually shaded out. The many cabbage trees now growing in paddocks and on bare hillsides are survivors from earlier land clearances and the creation of drainage for farming.
Cabbage trees all produce branched flowering stems laden with cream-coloured, highly scented flowers in spring or early summer. These are followed by white to blue-mottled berries in late summer and autumn.
Natural and planted groves of tī trees were harvested by Māori for food, particularly in the south where growing kūmara (sweet potato) was marginal. The growing tips or leaf hearts were stripped of leaves and eaten raw or cooked. Young stems and roots were steam-cooked in earth ovens to yield nutritious sugars. Their strong, strappy leaves produced tougher fibre than that of harakeke (New Zealand flax). Uses included ropes, cooking mats and baskets, waterproof rain capes and cloaks, and sandals.
Tī kōuka (Cordyline australis) is the most common cabbage tree and can live for hundreds of years. It is one of the largest tree lilies in the world, sometimes growing to be massive (up to 20 metres high with trunks 1.5–2 metres in diameter). Old specimens may be multi-stemmed, with such stems growing from vegetative sprouts at the base of the parent tree. Tī kōuka’s narrow, tough leaves are frost and wind resistant, and the bark is rough and cork-like. This species is found throughout New Zealand, except for Fiordland.
More shrubby than tree-like, the forest cabbage tree (C. banksii) produces stems or branches close to the ground and grows only four metres high. This species is common in wet sites, in coastal, lowland, and montane forests throughout the North Island and the north-west South Island.
The mountain cabbage tree (C. indivisa) is easily distinguished from common cabbage tree, as it has much broader, blue-green leaves, mostly unbranched trunks, and flowering stems that develop below the leaf tuft. It reaches about eight metres in height.
It grows in open spaces and in gully heads in wet montane forest and subalpine scrub. This cabbage tree is found from southern Auckland to Fiordland, though in the South Island it grows mostly to the west of the Southern Alps.
Coprosmas (one of the largest genera of plants found in New Zealand) are related to the coffee plant. They are mostly shrubby, but eight species grow into small trees. Coprosmas frequently produce hybrids and are notoriously difficult to identify, so only some of the more common and easily recognised species are described here.
They all have leaves that come from the stem in opposite pairs, with small pits along the veins on the undersurface. Insignificant thread-like flowers are followed by masses of showy berries of many colours: translucent whites and blues, yellow, orange and red. These are sought-after by native birds.
Karamū (Coprosma robusta) grows throughout the two main islands on open sites in coastal and lowland–montane forest and in scrub. It has spreading branches and leathery, dark green leaves up to 12 centimetres long and five centimetres wide, which can be recognised by their finely toothed margins. Like most other large-leaved coprosmas, karamū flowers in spring.
Kanano (C. grandifolia, previously C. australis) looks very similar to karamū, but has a slightly different distribution and habitat. It favours more moist and sheltered sites, where it is common in regenerating areas and along logging roads. In the eastern South Island, kanano is restricted to Marlborough, and is not found south of Lake Ianthe in the west. Kanono’s branches are more upright and its leaves are larger (15–20 centimetres long and 7–10 wide) and mottled yellow-green. Unlike karamū, kanano flowers in autumn.
Taupata (C. repens) is a coastal tree, growing throughout the North Island and the top half of the South Island. It has orange-red berries, pale bark and thick, glossy, almost succulent leaves. It is widely grown as a hedge plant.
Stinkwood (C. foetidissima) is common in the forest understorey and in scrub, from the Coromandel southwards. It is most easily recognised by the rotten-egg smell released when its leaves are crushed. The leaves are a dull light green and oblong or egg-shaped.
There is a multitude of lookalike small-leaved divaricating shrubs that inhabit the understorey of forests and dominate shrubland throughout New Zealand, and about 30 of these are coprosmas. They are particularly common in Canterbury and Westland. Identifying them is difficult because of genetic and environmental differences within species. Even botanists are prone to calling any small-leaved divaricating forest shrub a coprosma, knowing they have a good chance of being right. Many species have yet to be formally named.
Leaves come in a variety of shapes – round, wedge-like, or narrow and linear – and can be thick or thin. Some small-leaved shrubby coprosmas have hairy branchlets. The fruit come in all colours, and this is one of the most distinguishable features. Anyone keen to identify these coprosmas needs a hand lens and an illustrated field guide.
Pittosporums are most familiar as small bushy trees with attractive foliage, grown widely in gardens. Of the 21 New Zealand species, about half are divaricating shrubs.
Some pittosporums are common throughout the country, growing in forest and scrub from the coast to subalpine habitats. Others have restricted distributions, and some are rare or endangered.
Pittosporums have small bell-shaped flowers. These are followed by woody capsules containing the sticky seeds that give the genus its Latin name – pittosporum means pitch seed.
Karo (Pittosporum crassifolium) is a small tree or shrub, conspicuous in coastal forest. It grows naturally on the Three Kings Islands and Great Barrier Island, and in the North Island from Te Paki south to East Cape. It is now widely naturalised throughout New Zealand, partly as a result of the dispersal of its seeds by birds.
Karo can reach 10 metres in height. Both its branchlets and the underside of its dark green leathery leaves are felted white or buff. In spring to early summer karo bears richly-scented flowers, coloured deep crimson to purple. The flowers sit neatly among the leaves at the tips of branches. Its distinctive large seed capsules are felted white or yellow, and open to reveal sticky black seeds.
Fragrant plants were sought-after by Māori for use as scent or body lotion. Lemon-scented tarata was commonly used, as it was widely available. Its resinous sap and crushed leaves were mixed with plant oils such as tītoki and kohia.
The largest New Zealand pittosporum species, lemonwood (P. eugenioides) grows up to 12 metres tall. It is a handsome tree, with pale bark and wavy-edged, mottled, yellow-green leaves with a distinctive pale midrib. A strong lemon scent is released when its leaves are crushed.
Lemonwood is common in forests throughout the North and South islands, growing from the coast up to about 600 metres. In spring, lemonwood bears profuse clusters of cream-yellow, highly scented flowers.
A small tree or compact shrub, kōhūhū (P. tenuifolium) is common throughout New Zealand, particularly in regenerating forest and scrubland. It has dark branchlets and small, wavy-edged, pale-green leaves with a silvery sheen. Kōhūhū’s solitary, small, dark-red to black flowers are often overlooked, but the scent can be noticeable at night during spring.
Several twiggy, divaricating, lookalike pittosporums with small leaves are found in the lowland to montane forests of both main islands.
Pittosporum rigidum is an upright shrub with stiff, interlacing branches. It is up to four metres tall, and has whorls of lobed or toothed dark-brownish green leaves, and solitary dark red flowers. It is common in the North Island axial ranges and in north-west Nelson.
Smaller P. divaricatum also has dark red to black flowers and irregularly lobed juvenile leaves but a more open habit. Its pale green adult leaves have two distinct shapes – toothed or smooth-edged. This species is widespread in the lowland to montane beech forest and scrub of Canterbury, but is rare west of the Southern Alps.
Shrubby P. anomalum is the smallest of this group of lookalikes, reaching about one metre in height. Compact, with tightly interwoven, stout, reddish-orange branches, it has strongly scented yellow flowers.
Kōwhai and kākā beak are native members of the pea family, with large, showy flowers and neat, fern-like compound leaves. They are well-known and widely cultivated. Most of the eight kōwhai species are trees. In spring, their rich yellow flowers are seen in forests and shrublands throughout New Zealand.
The two kākā beak species, with their brilliant red, pink or white flowers (named for their resemblance to the curved beak of the kākā parrot) have always been rare and only found locally distributed in northern shrublands. They are now one of the rarest native plants in the wild.
Sophora microphylla is the most common kōwhai. It grows mostly on forest margins, in open places, and along river banks throughout the two main islands, although its distribution is patchy. This kōwhai has small leaves and a divaricating, twiggy juvenile stage that can persist around the base of the adult trees. The trees can reach 25 metres in height, and they usually have a single trunk and weeping branches.
In 2001 scientists described five new species of kōwhai that had previously been grouped with S. microphylla. They include:
S. tetraptera is showier than S. microphylla, with larger, conspicuously keeled flowers and big grey-green leaves. It is the most popular garden tree. It is now widely naturalised, but once grew only in the eastern North Island, from sea level to 450 metres. It reaches 15 metres in height and is often multi-stemmed. This species does not have a divaricating juvenile stage.
The smallest kōwhai species, S. prostrata, retains its shrubby divaricating form and is restricted to the eastern South Island.
Clianthus maximus is a sprawling shrub. It is scattered in regenerating scrubland – often at the tops and bases of unstable cliffs and rock falls – on the East Coast of the North Island south to northern Hawke’s Bay and east to Te Urewera. Inland specimens may have been planted, as they are found near former Māori settlements and gardens. This species has dark green leaves with a shiny upper surface and dark scarlet flowers. It may produce a few flowers throughout the year, but most flowering occurs between early spring and late summer.
C. puniceus is now found in only one site in the wild, and those at this site may be the result of Māori cultivation. This kākā beak may have once grown naturally in Northland and the eastern side of the Hauraki Gulf. It has matt-green leaves and slightly smaller scarlet, pink, or white flowers, often with a white stripe.
Many flowering native shrub or tree species belong to the daisy family. Of the approximately 20 tree-forming olearia species, some are widespread in forests. These have typical daisy flowers with white to cream ray florets and flaky furrowed bark, but can be recognised by their leaves. Although many yellow-flowered shrubby brachyglottis species (until recently mostly classed as Senecio) are grown widely in gardens, only two are common in forests. Most brachyglottis are shrubland or forest margin species and are restricted in their distribution.
Two olearia species, with tough leathery leaves, are mostly found in montane to subalpine forests.
Olearia lacunosa’s narrow dark leaves have edges that curve under and sunken hollows between the veins on the underside. Its rough grey bark hangs in strips, rather like that of tōtara. This species is found from the Tararua Range in the north to Westland in the south.
Hakeke – holly-leaved O. ilicifolia – is more common, being found from East Cape to Stewart Island. Its spiny-toothed leaves are linear to oblong, and easily recognised by their musky scent.
Three of the more common olearias have rounded or egg-shaped, wavy-edged leaves.
Heketara (Olearia rani) grows from sea level to 800 metres in forest, scrub, and on lake and river margins throughout the North Island and in Nelson and Marlborough. This species forms a shrub in the forest interior, but in the open can grow into a small tree up to eight metres high. Its pale green leathery leaves are toothed and woolly underneath, and its yellow-centred flowers grow in creamy masses in spring.
Lookalike O. arborescens has darker, glossier leaves and smaller flower clusters. It grows in forests and scrub from sea level up to 1,200 metres, from the Bay of Plenty southwards.
Akiraho or golden akeake (O. paniculata) has smaller pale leaves, distinctly buff-golden wool on its branchlets and leaf undersides, and sweet-smelling small flowers. Mainly growing in coastal forests from East Cape and Raglan Harbour southwards to Ōamaru and Greymouth, it is widely grown as a hedge plant. Unlike most other tree daisies, it flowers in autumn.
Māori used the big, soft leaves of rangiora as poultices for wounds and sores, and called paper ‘pukapuka’, which is one of their names for this plant. Early European settlers living in the bush used the leaves as toilet paper, and trampers still do today.
Large, soft, matt-green leaves with glistening white woolly undersurfaces make rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda) easy to recognise. It grows as a shrub or tree up to seven metres high. It is found in open forest and shrubland throughout the North Island and from north-west Nelson to just south of Greymouth in the west, and near Kēkerengū in the east. This plant has naturalised on Banks Peninsula, Otago Peninsula and around Oban on Stewart Island. Its masses of tiny, creamy yellow flowers appear in late winter and early spring.
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.
Pepper tree is a common name for two distinctly different native trees – horopito and kawakawa. Horopito has peppery tasting leaves and belongs to a primitive flowering family – the Winteraceae. Kawakawa has heart-shaped leaves and belongs to the Piperaceae family, which is the true pepper family. Kawakawa is closely related to the Polynesian kava plant.
Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) is a shrub or small tree that grows to eight metres in height. It grows throughout much of New Zealand, with the exception of the far north. It is abundant in upland and mountain forests in the North Island, and extends down to sea level in the southern South Island. It regenerates well after the destruction of tall forests and at high altitudes forms dense secondary shrublands and low forest.
The upper surface of its light green, elliptical leaves is splotched with red, especially if the plant is exposed to the light. The underside is blue-grey. Tiny greenish-white flowers appear in early spring, followed by black berries in autumn.
Horopito leaves have a hot peppery taste and leave a burning sensation in the mouth. The taste is caused by polygodial, a compound that also has some anti-fungal properties. As horopito tastes bad to deer and stock, it often dominates understorey vegetation in heavily browsed forests.
Lowland horopito (P. axillaris) grows to about 10 metres in height. It is common in forests of the North Island up to about 700 metres and lowland forests in the northern half of the South Island. It has glossy green leaves, slightly larger than those of its upland relative. Like horopito, it flowers in early spring, producing tiny lime-coloured flowers along its branches. Its fruit is a dark red berry.
Kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) is found in coastal and lowland forests throughout the North Island and the northern half of the South Island. It is a small tree, growing to six metres tall, with dense branches. It is easily recognised by its heart-shaped leaves and jointed stems, which resemble bamboo stalks. The leaves are often pocked with holes caused by the looper caterpillar Cleora scriptaria.
The tiny male and female flowers are arranged in upright spikes and grow on separate trees. In summer female spikes ripen to a deep orange and their swollen fruits are a favoured food of forest birds.
Kawakawa was often used by Māori. The leaves were placed over cuts and boils to speed up healing, and a tea was made from an infusion of its leaves.
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Simpson, Philip. Dancing leaves: the story of New Zealand’s cabbage tree, tī kōuka. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2000.
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