September in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne
Fuscospora fusca, red beech, tawhai raunui
This endemic, shaggy-barked tree grows to over 30 m tall, with a trunk sometimes over 2 m in diameter, often with big buttresses at the base. Growth-rings indicate a life-span of 450 – 600 years. The most widely distributed of our beeches, it ranges from near sea level to over 1,000 m altitude. Red beech occurs in moist, mid-montane forests. In the North Island it occurs from Coromandel southwards, except on Mt Taranaki, parts of the Volcanic Plateau, either side of the Manawatu Gorge and south of Kaitoke. In the South Island, it occurs widely, except in parts of Westland, and eastern Canterbury. It is absent from Stewart Island. The most abundant red beech communities are on moderately-fertile, freely-draining soils on the river terraces and lower slopes of inland mountain valleys.
The leaves turn bright red in winter. Measuring 20-40 mm x 15-25 mm, they are usually larger and broader than our other beech species, hence its Māori name, tawhai raunui, 'big-leaved beech'. They have a relatively flimsy texture, 3, 4 or 5 side-veins and pointed teeth curving towards the leaf tip, some of them double. On the underside, there are usually one or two brownish, hair-fringed domatia (pores) where the side veins join the midrib. The leaf tips are pointed, not rounded – you may like to compare them with hard beech leaves in next article.
Beeches are described as monoecious (meaning 'having one home') because each beech tree has both male flowers and female flowers, so it is 'one home' for both sexes. The flowers are tiny, wind-pollinated, and clustered in groups of 1-5. They are followed by winged 'nuts' c. 7 mm long, distributed by gravity, wind or water. Flowering occurs from spring to early summer, and fruiting occurs from summer to autumn. When flowering and fruiting are in great abundance – usually every three years - it is called a masting season.
Red beech trees have shallow, wide-spreading root plates but no deep tap roots, which is why they may lack stability. On your tramps, you may have seen red beech trees toppled by severe gales, resulting in canopy gaps which allow light to penetrate to the forest floor. This promotes prolific germination of seeds, which later produce very dense thickets of beech saplings and small trees, intensely frustrating for off-track trampers.
When you are planning to tramp in beech forests in summer, take a supply of fresh antihistamine in your first aid kit for immediate emergency use in a wasp attack. In summer, beech forests swarm with hordes of the introduced common wasp, harvesting sugars in the form of honeydew, excreted by an endemic sap-sucking insect living in beech bark - usually red and black beech. Other insects and nectarivorous birds compete for this highly nutritious, sweetly fragrant substance, now the basis of a lucrative export industry. Sooty mould often appears on the bark, growing within the film of honeydew, producing a black, velvety coating. Fermenting honeydew gives beech forest its characteristic sweet smell.
Māori used to make a black dye from its bark, and later settlers found it useful for tanning leather. No rongoā uses are known. Red beech derives its name from the colour of its timber, which is noted for its toughness and durability, yet it is easily worked. Hence it has played an important role in our history, its uses ranging from furniture to mine props, boat-building, wharves and railway sleepers.
The tallest and fastest-growing of the NZ beeches, red beech is a popular choice for public amenity and memorial plantings