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This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 1, February 2015

February in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

NZ's indigenous conifers

Conifers are plants whose reproductive organs are called cones. In the forthcoming monthly issues of The Tramper, we shall be describing some of NZ's indigenous conifers: kahikatea, rimu, mountain toatoa, tōtara, mataī and miro.

Our ancient forests are priceless heritage

TTC members tramp in bush in the Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi ranges, in Otari-Wilton's Bush, other reserves in the Wellington region, and beyond, sometimes among majestic, towering, indigenous conifer species that are hundreds of years old, emergent above the canopy. An example is kahikatea, which can reach to 60 m in height, and exceed 1,000 years of age.

Fossil pollen research has established that kahikatea's direct ancestors were flourishing in Gondwanaland in the Jurassic period, up to c. 175 million years ago. In John Salmon's The native trees of New Zealand, he describes the unbroken ancestry, the priceless heritage of our NZ indigenous conifer forests. He went on to write that they contain more species with ancient lineages than there are in old forests elsewhere, and are therefore among the most ancient forests in the world.

NZ's indigenous conifers

Our indigenous conifers are classified as gymnosperms, which are non-flowering, seed-producing plants. The name is derived from Greek: 'gymno' = naked, and 'sperm' = seed, because they reproduce by means of seeds that are naked, i.e., not enclosed. Therefore they differ from angiosperms, which are flowering plants whose seeds are enclosed inside ovaries, or inside mature fruit, e.g., apple.

Our three families of indigenous NZ conifers are organised into ten genera and twenty-one species. The families are:

  • Podocarpaceae (18 species). 'Podocarp' is from Greek: 'podos' (foot) and 'karpos' (fruit).
  • Araucariaceae (1 species), and
  • Cupressaceae (2 species).

There are no members of Araucariaceae or Cupressaceae families in the Wellington region. All our indigenous conifer species are endemic and evergreen. Nineteen of them are trees, e.g., rimu, kauri, mountain cedar, etc. Two of them are low shrubs, e.g., pygmy pine, (rarely more than 30 cm high!).

Wellington region's indigenous conifers

Keep an eye out for the following members of the podocarp family which have been recorded in the Tararua (T), Rimutaka (R), and Aorangi (A), ranges, and western Wellington (W) hills:

Dacrycarpus dacrydioideskahikateaT R A W
Dacrydium cupressinumrimuT R A W
Halocarpus biformispink pineT
Phyllocladus alpinus agg.*mountain toatoaT
Phyllocladus toatoatoatoaT
Podocarpus cunninghamiithin-barked tōtaraT R A
P. cunninghamii x P. nivalisa hybrid tōtaraT R
P. cunninghamii x P. totaraa hybrid tōtaraT
Podocarpus totaratōtaraT R A W
Prumnopitys ferrugineamiroT R A W
Prumnopitys taxifoliamataīT R A W
**agg. = aggregate, meaning a group of plants with similar features which may require further study to determine whether they comprise one entity, or more than one entity.

NZ's indinenous conifers

Phyllocladus trichomanoidestānekaha

Next month we shall get back to our usual pattern of focussing on a single plant. The subject will be kahikatea, the first podocarp in the list above


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 8, September 2017

September in the hills with Chris Horne

Adiantum cunninghamii, huruhuru tapairu, common maidenhair

This endemic fern is one of seven members of the genus Adiantum in our flora. Collectively called maidenhair ferns, they all feature shiny, dark-brown stalks/stipes and stems/rachises.

Origin of the names

Adiantum, from the Greek word ‘adiantos’, meaning ‘unwetted’, refers to the fronds remaining as if dry after being plunged into water; cunninghamii refers to Allan Cunningham (1791-1839), an English botanist, stationed in Australia, who collected plants in New Zealand. The Adiantum ferns have several Māori names, e.g., huruhuru tapairu, makawe tapairu, tawatawa. ‘Huruhuru’ means ‘coarse hair’, ‘bristles’; ‘tapairu’ means ‘honoured lady’ – hence ‘maidenhair’; ‘makawe’ means ‘hair of the head’ or ‘ringlet’. The verb ‘tawatawa’ means ‘to be mottled, like the skin of a mackerel’.

Distribution and habitat

Common maidenhair is our most widespread and abundant species of Adiantum. Look for it in coastal and lowland forest, bush remnants, on cliffs, banks, limestone areas and among boulders, up to about 500 m elevation. You can find it on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, Te Wai Pounamu/South Island, the Kermadec, Three Kings, Rakiura/Stewart and Rekohu/Chatham Islands.


The stout, far-creeping rhizome is clad in stiff, dark-brown scales up to 8mm long.

Growth habit

Common maidenhair is a small ground fern. Its fronds are 10-35 cm long x 5-24 cm wide. The segments/pinnae are more or less oblong, tending to curve towards the apex. The upper edges of a segment are irregularly toothed, the lower edge is smooth. The segments are dark green above, and blue-green below. The wiry, shining, almost black stalk/stipe is attached to one corner of a segment.


Indusia are thin, kidney-shaped outgrowths of tissue which cover the spores/sori. As the indusia mature, they shrivel and bend backwards to expose the spore capsules/sporangia. Ripe spores are then spread by the wind to produce young maidenhair ferns.


Māori prepared a lotion from the fronds and roots of common maidenhair. Adiantum fern species remain popular in the UK, a left-over from a fern craze there in the 1800s.

Where to look for common maidenhair

Look for this widespread fern in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Wellington Botanic Garden, Huntleigh Park, Khandallah Park, Long Gully Bush Reserve, the southern North Island coast, and the Rimutaka, Tararua and Aorangi ranges. Its completely hairless frond, and the oblong segments which are often bluish-green on the underside, will help you to identify it.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 5, June 2011

June in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Alectryon excelsus, Tītoki

* Alectryon-excelsus-exce-01a.jpg Δ

You can often spot a tītoki trunk from a distance by its almost black colour, and when you get close, you can feel its slightly rough texture. The dark green, pointed leaflets, each about 7 cm long, usually have serrated edges, and are arranged in pairs along the stalk, with a single leaflet at the end. This foliage is highly palatable to browsing animals such as possums, which can easily kill a tree by defoliating it. Tītoki grow in lowland sites with fertile soil and a reasonably warm climate, where they can reach to well over 10 m in height.

A NZ endemic, tītoki extend from North Cape, to Banks Peninsula and Westland.

Pendulous clusters of tiny, deep red flowers are followed by curiously shaped, woody, brown capsules which take about a year to mature. When they open, they reveal what looks like a scarlet raspberry (it's called an aril), topped by a shiny black seed about 1 cm long.

Māori observed that birds flocked to feed on tītoki in season, and after gorging on these succulent arils, nearly always drank water. So choosing a tītoki with a good crop of arils, hunters would secure in its branches, tiny wooden troughs like canoes, filled with water. Attached around the troughs were finely plaited snares which were activated by a hunter hidden nearby, ready to tug the draw-string.

Like many plants in our flora, tītoki has medicinal (rongoā) properties which were known to Māori, and the fragrant oil, when refined by a laborious process, was used as an unguent and a perfume.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 11, December 2015

December in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Asplenium bulbiferum, manamana, hen and chickens / mother fern

In last month's article we described Asplenium flaccidum. This month's plant choice is another common member of the asplenium genus: Asplenium bulbiferum. Its Mēori name, 'manamana', is probably an emphatically complimentary 'tag name' derived from the word 'mana' which means prestige* (see Uses) or dignity. 'Bulbiferum' means 'bearing bulbs', In the bush you have probably often seen manamana's large handsome fronds carrying tiny young fernlets called bulbils on their top surface 'like a brood of chickens'. (See image). Sometimes the whole frond falls off or is knocked off and all the bulbils get 'planted' at once!

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Asplenium bulbiferum fronds showing bulbils
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe


Bubils are a most unusual method of fern reproduction in NZ. The bulbils on top of the manamana frond are complete young fern plants which have grown there directly out of the cells on the frond surface. When the bulbils have sprouted one or two tiny fronds of their own they will detach and land on the soil, sprout roots, and live a life completely separate from the parent plant.

Asplenium bulbiferum is also unusual in that it has two ways of reproduction, one as above, non-sexual via bulbils, and the other, like other ferns, sexual. The sexual method of reproduction in ferns is cyclic and complex, involving spores and both sexual and non-sexual phases. Spores are single-celled reproductive organs, but neither male nor female. When mature, spores fall to the ground or are further distributed by wind. In damp conditions, on the ground, each spore may then develop into what is called a prothallus. Though only about the size of ½ a fingernail, each prothallus develops two separate sets of sexual organs, one producing eggs and the other sperm. Fertilisation between them produces tiny new fern plants which grow just like any other fern plant, thus completing the cycle.

Form and size

Manamana is terrestrial, with dark green, elliptic fronds ascending from the rhizome in a graceful curve, and extending for 12 – 120 cm x 4 – 50 cm. (shorter and broader than last month's Asplenium flaccidum fronds). The stems are brown at the base and green further up. The fronds' slim, tapering segments can be up to 35 cm long and are dissected 2 or 3 times further into smaller parts, making an intricate, elegant pattern. The sori on the back of each are typically neatly arranged at c. 45 degrees to the midrib.


Asplenium bulbiferum is found in lowland and montane forest in the North, South, Rakiura / Stewart, Rekohu / Chatham and Antipodes islands and also in Australia. If you're tramping in Central Otago or the drier parts of South Canterbury you will not be likely to see it there, as it prefers moister environments.


As its Māori name implies, manamana had many ceremonial* uses such as a placatory offering to Tāne when a tree had to be felled for waka-making; or as soft swaddling for a new-born baby. Young manamana shoots were a popular culinary vegetable wrapped round fish or birds in the hāngi and mature fronds were sometimes even woven into clothing. Along with a number of other indigenous plant species manamana was sometimes soaked and used as a rongoā wash to bathe painful cutaneous conditions.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 2, March 2016

March in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Aspleniumflabellifolium.jpg: 1239x1071, 355k (2016 May 29 08:52)
Asplenium flabellifolium, with inset showing fertile segments.
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

Asplenium flabellifolium, necklace fern/walking fern/butterfly fern

We have not yet found a Māori name for this month's Asplenium species, necklace fern, a dainty, distinctive fern of dry, rocky sites. Its botanical name is derived from the Latin word: flabella, a fan, and folia, a leaf.

But ferns don't have true leaves, Instead, fern fronds have segments which look like leaves but have two functions – (1) the upper surface of the segments converts visible light into energy, and (2) if you turn a segment over, you will see that the underside has sori, containing spores, which are reproductive organs, as we described for Asplenium bulbiferum.

Once recognised, this uncommon little fern is easily remembered, because it is so unusual.

Form and habit

Its narrow, delicate fronds, (4–30 cm x 0.8–4 cm) are often prostrate, but frequently arch up and over (see image).

Spaced out along the lower length of the fronds, are pale green, fan-shaped, toothed segments, paired alternately. About 2 cm x 2 cm they resemble butterfly wings, (see image), hence the origin of one of the common names.

The upper part of the fronds usually consists of the completely bare main stem called the rachis. This can extend like a slim wand, well beyond the segments, in fact, it frequently doubles its length. Arching over to touch the ground, the proliferous tip of the rachis often takes root. This produces a new necklace fern plant, hence the name, “walking fern”.


In the December 2015 articel, we described Asplenium bulbiferum, which has two methods of reproduction, and so does Asplenium flabellifolium. One of its methods is non-sexual, i.e., simply using the proliferating stem-tip as a 'planting tool', as you have just learnt. The other method is sexual, i.e., via the spores in the sori, on the undersides of the fan-shaped segments. (see inset).

When the mature necklace fern-spores fall to the ground, in moist conditions they develop into prothalli, then they undergo the complete fern life-cycle – see our article in the December Tramper.


Found throughout in both North and South islands, as well as in Australia, necklace fern is one of several fern species tolerant of open, grassy or scrubby areas. You will find it more commonly in eastern areas, from North Cape to Invercargill, in lowland to lower- montane elevations.


We have seen no references to rongoā or other uses, for necklace fern.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 10, November 2015

November in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Asplenium flaccidum, hanging spleenwort, makawe o Raukatauri

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Asplenium flaccidum epiphytic on a tree trunk.
Photo: Paul Newport, Hinewai Reserve

In the October issue of The Tramper, we described Asplenium oblongifolium. In this issue we describe another common member of the Asplenium fern genus, Asplenuim flaccidum. The second part of its name refers to the naturally pendulous habit of its fronds. The Māori name means ‘the tresses on the head of Raukatauri, the atua / supernatural being’ who was believed to be the spirit of forest music. She is named after the flute-shaped cocoon of the case-moth caterpillar. Have you noticed those cocoons hanging from the trunks and branches of trees and shrubs?

No doubt you have seen this strikingly graceful fern hanging from a tree trunk, a branch, a tree-fern trunk, a rock face or a log on the forest floor. It is almost always epiphytic, i.e., perching on another plant, but it is not a parasite. You occasionally see it growing terrestrially, i.e., on the ground, where the wind carried its parent spore.


Hanging spleenwort is common in a wide variety of habitats throughout NZ, from lowland to montane forests, rocky subalpine sites, and on coastal sites, from the Kermadecs and Three Kings, to Rēkohu / Chatham Island, Rakiura / Stewart Island and the Antipodes Islands. It is also native to Australia.

Form, size, reproduction

Its leathery fronds have a wide variety of forms. They are usually pendulous, up to 1.25 m long and 6-100 x 4-25 cm wide in forest sites, but on exposed sites, e.g., on the coast, are often shorter. Each frond comprises numerous narrow segments, which vary in shape, are dull green, toothed, and 2-20 x 0.5-2 cm. The segments bear the reproductive organs, sori, which form at the edges of the teeth. Spores, which develop within the sori, eventually ripen, then are carried by the wind to another location, where they may germinate.


We have been unable to find references to rongoā / medicinal or other uses for makawe o Raukatauri. Trampers use the plant’s attractive pendulous habit as a feature in their photographs of the plant itself, or as a point of interest in the foreground of a photograph of a forest scene.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 9, October 2015

October in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Having recently introduced you to some NZ conifers, we are now leaving that topic. Early last year we described five NZ tree ferns and this month we start on some NZ ground-fern species.

How do ferns differ from flowering plants?

There is a fundamental difference between ferns and flowering plants. A fern has neither flowers nor true leaves. Instead, it has fronds, which have a dual function – the upper surface of a frond converts visible light into energy, but if you turn it over, you will see that the underside has sori, containing spores, which are reproductive organs.

By contrast, flowering plants have true leaves, the sole function of which is to convert visible light into energy, and they have separate, specialised structures for reproduction, namely flowers.

Fern rhizomes

All ferns have a rhizome, which is defined botanically as a type of stem. Some fern rhizomes creep along the soil surface, e.g., kidney fern. Some ferns have a climbing rhizome, e.g., mokimoki, climbing hound's tongue. Some ferns have a tall, solid rhizome like a trunk, e.g., all tree ferns. Some fern species, e.g., our fern-of-the-month, shining spleenwort, has an erect, above-ground rhizome from which the fronds emerge above and roots develop below. Young fern fronds emerge tightly coiled in a koru shape, (of recent flag fame), an elegant growth form almost never seen in other plant groups.

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Asplenium oblongifolium

The Asplenium genus

The Asplenium genus is one of NZ's largest fern genera, with more than 20 species or sub-species. Derived from Greek, the name means 'no spleen', referring to an early belief that spleenworts provided a remedy for ailments of the spleen.

Asplenium oblongifolium, huruhuru whenua, shining spleenwort

This handsome endemic fern is common in a wide variety of sites and conditions, in coastal to lower montane areas in the North Island, and in coastal areas in the South Island as far south as Banks Peninsula and Greymouth. Look for it on rugged, coastal cliffs, open scrub, or deep in shady forest. Usually terrestrial, it is sometimes epiphytic. Its rhizome is densely covered in dark brown scales. In exposed, well-lit sites, the fronds are usually pale green. In shady forest the mature fronds are a glossy, dark green (see image) up to 1000 mm x 350 mm. Its 16-40 alternate segments are pinnately arranged and look just like leaflets. They are 40 – 250 mm x 10 - 40 mm, with slightly serrated margins and a fairly firm texture. Look at their undersides to see neatly parallel rows of sori, each up to 20 mm long, in a herringbone pattern, from which ripe spores are distributed by the wind. You may find it useful to remember that most species of Asplenium have a herrring-bone pattern of sorts.

The species name oblongifolium refers to the generally parallel-sided frond segments that taper to points at their tips. Lastly, shining spleenwort's glossy fronds make it easy to identify. The Māori name huruhuru whenua is a metaphor for the body-hair of the land.


To some Māori, huruhuru whenua was sacred. Tōhunga / priests used it in some spiritual rituals. Māori would placate Tāne, god of the forest, by placing fronds of huruhuru whenua over the stumps of trees they had felled to make waka / canoes. They ate the koru/young shoots as a green vegetable, which William Colenso, an early missionary, described as succulent.


Huruhuru whenua is very easy to grow. Another pleasing feature of it is that it often self-sows in gardens and on road-side banks, its spores having been carried there by the wind. Look for it in lightly-shaded, damp sites in your garden – you may find that it has already arrived.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 1, February 2016

February in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Asplenium polyodon, petako, sickle spleenwort

In the December article, we described the fern Asplenium bulbiferum. This month's plant choice is another common member of the asplenium genus: Asplenium polyodon. ‘Polyodon’, derived from Greek, refers to the many teeth on the margins of the frond segments.

The name ‘spleenwort’, used in part of the names for several members of the Asplenium genus, refers to a first-century AD belief that spleenworts could cure enlarged spleens.

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Asplenium polyodon
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

Form, size, habitats

On your tramps in the bush you will probably have noticed sickle spleenwort’s strikingly handsome, long, arching fronds, each with many segments. Petako grows on the trunks of trees and tree ferns, or on the forest floor, or may hang down from clumps of nest-epiphytes such as species of Astelia in the crowns of large forest trees. The hanging fronds, dark green and glossy above, paler and dull below, are 150-1000 x 70-250 mm, on stalks 100-400 mm long. You may also have seen stunted petako growing on rocky surfaces.

Look closely at a segment to see the many teeth mentioned in our first paragraph. Note that each tooth may have from one to as many as sixteen serrations. A vein curves from the mid-rib to the end of each serration.


The segments bear the reproductive organs, sori, up to 20 mm long, which form in lines along the veins which curve away from the mid-ribs of the segments. Spores, which develop within the sori, eventually ripen, and are then carried by the wind to another location, where they may germinate.


Petako is common in lowland to montane forests in the North Island. In the South Island, it is mainly on the western side, although it also grows in a few sites from Banks Peninsula southwards. It occurs on the Kermadecs, The Three Kings, Rakiura / Stewart, and Rekohu / Chatham islands.

It also occurs in Australia, and is widespread in the tropics from Madagascar to the Pacific islands.


We have been unable to find any references to rongoā (medicinal uses) for petako - please tell us if you read or hear about any. How about photographing the fern to show its attractive, pendulous habit, or including it in the foreground of a forest scene.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 9, October 2016

October in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Blechnum chambersii, nini, lance fern*

This is the seventh member of the Blechnum genus described in The Tramper. It is named in honour of Thomas Carrick Chambers, a former University of Auckland student, who studied the Blechnum genus for fifty years. He became Professor of Botany at Melbourne University, and later, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

* Because nini is only one of the two ground-fern species whose common name is ‘lance fern’, we suggest that you use the plant’s botanical name, or its Māori name.
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Nini: upright fertile fronds above sterile fronds


Nini is native to New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific. This wide-ranging fern often grows in dense, extensive colonies, which makes it a visually striking and photogenic feature of many moist, shady, stream-sides and gullies in our region and beyond. Look for this very common fern in lowland to montane forests up to 1.000m elevation throughout New Zealand, except in Otago's drier parts.

Form and reproduction

Nini has stout, erect, rhizomes from which its tufted fronds grow. As you have read in our previous six articles on members of the Blechnum genus, the sterile fronds are distinctly different from the fertile fronds. The dark green, smooth, sterile fronds are narrowly elliptic, 13-50 cm long x 1.5-12 cm wide, They each have 15-40 pairs of segments, the longest in the middle, 0.8-6 cm long x 0.4-1.2 cm wide. They are shorter and more rounded near the base of the frond. Their tips can be blunt or pointed, and their margins are slightly toothed. The bases of the segments are adnate, i.e., they are attached to the frond’s rachis by their whole width.

The fertile fronds, 15-20 cm long x 2-5 cm wide, are a little shorter and narrower than the sterile fronds. Their sori develop in two parallel lines, one on each side of the midrib on the underside of each of the very narrow segments. As the sori ripen and open, the spores they contain are released, then spread by the wind to germinate in a moist, shady site. They then undergo the complete fern life-cycle described in our December 2015 article.


Māori cooked young fronds of nini, and some other plants, in hangi/earth ovens, to eat as a green vegetable. Because nini is so widespread, it was, and is, easy to find for cooking. Our region has many steep, erosion-prone slopes with dense carpets of nini, which with other plant species, helps to protect the soil from the impacts of heavy rain.

Blechnum chambersii – where to look for it in our region Look for nini beside streams in Otari-Wilton’s Bush; Huntleigh Park; Khandallah Park, Centennial Reserve; the Botanic Garden’s native forest areas; Karori Sanctuary / Zealandia; East Harbour, Belmont and Kaitoke regional parks; Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi ranges


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 4, May 2016

May in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Blechnum colensoi, peretao, Colenso's hard fern

Sterile peretao fronds with one fertile frond  Photo: Jeremy Rolfe
Sterile peretao fronds with one fertile frond
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

Many trampers are likely to be familiar with this handsome, endemic ground fern of wet gullies, often beside deeply shaded waterfalls where it is recognised by its large, glossy, deep-green, pendulous fronds hanging down steep banks.


Like most Blechnum species, Blechnum colensoi's fertile fronds are very different from its sterile fronds. If you look at the image on this page, you will notice a very skinny, sinuous frond sprawling to the left, rather like a big green fish skeleton! This is the fertile frond, covered all over with green sori containing unripe spores, too tiny to be visible in this image.

When the spores ripen and fall to the ground, they will germinate and undergo the several stages of development into adult ferns, (e.g., prothallus; sexual differentiation; reproduction), which we described in the December 2015 Tramper.

Peretao's glossy, sterile fronds vary from 20 cm to one metre long and from 12-20 cm wide. Each frond usually has c. 10 pairs of broad, elliptic segments, each up to 20 x 4 cm, with a very firm, leathery texture and smooth margins which taper to a fine point at the tip. As you will notice in the image, an unusual feature of these segments is that they do not taper to join on to the frond's midrib, but are attached 'squarely' on to it by the whole width of their broad bases. This type of attachment is referred to as 'decurrent'.


Peretao is common in wet, lowland to montane forests from Hokianga Harbour southwards, and also in the South, Stewart, Chatham and Auckland islands.


Peretao is a significant member of a specialised community of plants and animals which require high amounts of shade and ambient moisture to survive and thrive, e.g. mosses, liverworts, ferns and many other species. Its long, broad fronds provide shade and a splash-back surface which re-distributes falling water.

Its handsome, luxuriant appearance adds greatly to the beauty of waterfall sites with which it is so often associated, enhancing their appeal to trampers and tourists alike, especially when they can include this distinctive fern in their photographs. Some people even call it ‘waterfall fern’.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 3, April 2016

April in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Blechnum discolor, crown fern, piupiu

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Crown fern / piupiu
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

There are about twenty members of this fern genus in New Zealand. A striking feature of all Blechnum species is that their fertile fronds and sterile fronds usually look different from each other, with the fertile fronds being much narrower. The fertile fronds grow in the centre of the plants, with two lines of sori on the undersides of their narrow segments.

The name Blechnum is derived from the Latin word for ferns; discolor refers to the “two-coloured” feature of the sterile fronds - their upper and lower surfaces are differently coloured.


Crown fern is endemic to New Zealand. It is common in drier lowland to montane forests, usually at higher elevations in the North Island. You can see it on the North, South, Stewart/ Rakiura, Chatham/Rekohu, Auckland and Campbell islands.


Crown fern often forms woody trunks up to c.30 cm tall. The sterile fronds rise and spread out like a crown, while the stiffly upright fertile fronds grow up from the centre of the plant. The stalks of the sterile fronds are 5-16 cm long. The upper parts of the sterile fronds are 20-100 x 5-16 cm, bright green above, and much paler below.

If deer, goats or possums are numerous in the vicinity, crown fern may flourish because these pest animals rarely eat piupiu's harsh fronds. It often forms extensive patches in open beech forest and in scrub, because it spreads by means of runners. It often out-competes other plant species. You may have waded through such dense communities of it in shorts, that you are sure to have felt the rough texture of the sterile fronds!


The fertile fronds are slightly taller than the sterile fronds. The sori, in which the spores develop, are in continuous lines along both sides of the midrib of the fertile fronds. When ripe, the spores are distributed by the wind.


The light colour of the underside of the fronds shows up clearly in daylight, as well as in the light of your torch. You can turn over the ends of crown fern's sterile fronds to point out a temporary route. For example, you can turn them over to mark the route from your tent site to your toilet trench, or to the nearby creek. In order to implement the Minimum Impact Code, before you break camp, you have merely to unbend the fronds, and no one will know that you have been there.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 6, July 2016

July in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Blechnum filiforme, pānako, thread fern, climbing hard fern

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1. Juvenile thread fern
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

If you're tramping in forest and notice a fern climbing high on tree trunks, it's almost certainly pānako, Blechnum filiforme, the only blechnum species which is high-climbing. It is found in coastal and lowland forests in the North Island and the northern coast of the South Island. This NZ endemic fern is unique in having three types of fronds: juvenile; sterile adult and fertile adult.

1. Juvenile

On the ground, you will see some small, deep-green, juvenile fronds creeping over banks and rocks before beginning to climb. These little fronds are narrowly elliptic, usually no wider than 5 cm and only up to 25 cm long, with 15–20 pairs of coarsely-toothed segments either side, each only 5-25 x 2–8 mm. (See image no. 1).

2. Sterile adult

As pānako's thin, dark, scaly rhizome elongates itself and begins to climb vertically, clinging closely to the tree trunk, it sprouts dense trusses of adult, sterile fronds as it goes. These bright-green fronds get much bigger as they mature, often reaching c. 60 x 15 cm, and almost completely covering the tree trunk. They have up to 30 pairs of segments arranged pinnately on the rachis, (i.e., in pairs along the stem), each segment narrowly elliptic, toothed, stalked, up to 9 x 5 cm, and tapering to a fine point, rather like Asplenium polyodon. (See image, page 12, February 2016 The Tramper).

3. Fertile adult

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2. Sterile fronds beneath fertile fronds
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

You may recall that the sterile fronds of all blechnum species are different from the fertile fronds. When pānako's growing tip has reached a height of c. 2 m up the tree trunk, it starts to produce its third type of frond. These are about the same size as the sterile ones, i.e., c. 60 x 15 cm, but otherwise they are completely different - delicate and fertile. Many fine, flexuous, thread-like strands sprout from each side of the rachis. (See image no. 2). They are so flimsy that even a light breeze causes them to quiver. Hence the names, “filiforme” and “thread fern”.


Despite their apparent fragility, these fertile fronds contain the spores, which ripen and reproduce as usual, via prothalli, etc., just as we have described for other ferns.


Pānako is highly decorative, adding its own distinctiveness and amenity to the forest ambience. Along with all other green plants, it contributes to the supply of oxygen. We do not know of any rongoā uses.

See also

Blechnum chambersii Nini Lance fern 2016-10
Blechnum colensoi Peretao Colenso's hard fern 2016-05
Blechnum discolor Piupiu Crown fern 2016-04
Blechnum filiforme Pānako Thread fern; Climbing hard fern 2016-07
Blechnum fluviatile Ray water fern 2016-08
Blechnum novae-zelandiae Kiokio 2016-06
Blechnum penna-marina Little hard fern; alpine hard fern 2016-11
Blechnum vulcanicum Korokio Mountain hard fern 2016-09


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 3, April 2016

August in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Blechnum fluviatile, kiwakiwa, ray water fern

Look for kiwakiwa when you are tramping - it is a distinctive ground fern, common throughout New Zealand, in lowland to montane forests, usually in damp, shaded areas, often beside waterways. Like all members of the Blechnum genus, its sterile fronds and fertile fronds are very different from each other. ‘Blechnum’ was the Greek name of a particular fern, and ‘fluviatile’, derived from Latin, means associated with rivers.


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Kiwakiwa: upright, fertile fronds and spreading, infertile fronds

Kiwakiwa‘s mature sterile fronds arise from the centre of a dense, flat, rosette of juvenile fronds. When mature, they are 15-75 cm long x 2-6 cm wide, with 20-60 pairs of crowded, rounded, dark-green segments, all about 10-30 x 8-12 mm. The stalks and rachises (the part of the frond bearing the segments) are covered in dark-brown scales. The fertile fronds are upright, arise from the centre of the plant, and are similar in length, or slightly longer, than the sterile fronds.


The sori, which contain the spores, develop on one side of each fertile frond. At first the sori are green, but as they ripen, they turn brown and release their spores, which can be carried a considerable distance by the wind. When a sorus (singular of sori) lands, it forms a prothallus, and if the conditions are right, i.e., moist and shaded, it will develop into a young kiwakiwa. (See our article on the complete fern life-cycle in the December 2015 article).


A rāhui is a sign, or a symbol, to warn people that something in the immediate vicinity, e.g. a crop of ripening kūmara, should not be approached, except by certain authorised people. To warn of the presence of a rāhui, a tohunga would choose a site in the vicinity for a post to be placed, then attach to it a few fronds of e.g. kiwakiwa, or some other item, and recite incantations over it, to imbue it with magical powers of protection.

Because of kiwakiwa’s particularly bitter flavour, Māori women sometimes used it as a rongoā, rubbing its crushed fronds on their breasts to wean children who were reluctant to give up the breast.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 5, June 2016

June in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Blechnum novae-zelandiae, kiokio


Kiokio is endemic to New Zealand. You are sure to have seen this common fern, the largest member of the Blechnum genus, and one of our larger ground-dwelling ferns. It grows on the Kermadecs, Three Kings, North, South, Stewart/Rakiura, Chatham/Rekohu, Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes islands. You will see kiokio throughout its widespread range: lowland to subalpine forest, boggy to dry open ground, and even rocky places. It often forms dense colonies in gullies and on track-side banks. It is particularly abundant on road cuttings on the West Coast, where it helps to prevent severe erosion during rain-storms.


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Kiokio – four fronds, three sterile, one fertile
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

Kiokio has a short-creeping rhizome. The stalk (stipe), 8-70 cm long, is stout, pale brown, and covered with pale-brown scales with dark centres.

The sterile fronds are green on top, paler green underneath, harsh to your touch and from 20-250 x 8–60 cm. They have 10-50 fine-toothed, segments, crowded in pairs and attached to the stem (rachis), which has scales similar to those on the stalk. You may notice that young kiokio fronds are often tinged with red or pink, thought to be a protection against strong ultra-violet light.

Kiokio's fertile fronds are quite different from its sterile fronds, a characteristic of the Blechnum genus, as you read in the April 2016 article. They are 15-50 cm or more long and 8-20 cm wide. You will see on the top right of the image a fertile frond, with numerous pairs of black, wire-like, fertile segments, and below them, about eight pairs of sterile segments.


Sori, which bear the spores, cover the undersides of the segments. When the sori mature, the spores within them ripen and are spread by the wind, to germinate and produce more kiokio. In the December 2015 article is a description of the several stages of the development of adult ferns.


Kiokio koru/fiddleheads are edible, raw or cooked. Māori used to wrap vegetables, e.g., kumara, in kiokio fronds, to add flavour to the hangi.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 10, November 2016

November in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Blechnum penna-marina, little hard fern; alpine hard fern

We do not know of a Māori name for this fern species, so if you know one, please tell us. Penna is a Latin word for feather, and marina means 'belonging to the sea'. Our fern this month is named after a primitive marine animal, Pennatula, commonly called sea-pen, a slender polyp, shaped just like one of Blechnum penna-marina's stiff, narrow, parallel-sided fronds. Now after that brief, mind-stretching saunter into the animal kingdom, let's get back on the track to plants!

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Blechnum penna-marina: Two tall fertile fronds, at different stages of development, arise from a dense bed of green sterile fronds

Distribution and habitat

In New Zealand, this dainty but tough little fern is much less common in the North Island than the South Island. Look for it in coastal areas, in light scrub and bush margins, then follow it up into tussock grassland, alpine herbfields, fellfields and shaded outcrops, right up to snowy summits, where it occurs in reduced form at up to 2000 m or to even higher elevations, in the Southern Alps. It also occurs on Stewart, Chatham, Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes islands. Further afield, it is found on Macquarie Island, Australia, South America, and several circum-polar islands.


The black, twig-like, widely-creeping, rhizome sprouts tufts of narrow, erect, parallel-sided, dark green fronds at intervals.

Growth habit

Alpine hard fern carpets the ground with close-growing fronds. The sterile fronds range from 3-25cm long x 0.6-2.5 cm wide, with thin, black-brown stipes (lower stems) of 2–17 cm, scaly at the base. The upper stems (rachises), are yellowish-brown with a strongly grooved midrib. Their 20-40 close-set pairs of narrow, bronze-green, sterile pinnae (segments), are arranged neatly in alternate pairs, with rounded or pointed tips. Their bases are adnate, i.e., attached to the rachis by their own whole width, with no 'stalk'.

The fertile fronds are similar, usually almost twice as tall as the sterile ones, with pairs of even narrower, curved pinnae, much more widely spaced on the rachis. (See image).


Blechnum penna-marina is a hardy, neat little creeping fern which makes excellent ground-cover for a damp spot. We do not know of any rongoā uses.

During the 1980s, the Levin Horticultural Centre, (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), in collaboration with the DSIR and the NZ Nurserymen's Association, conducted research on numerous NZ plant species, one of which was Blechnum penna-marina. This was because there were extensive, lucrative markets for NZ plants, in Europe, USA and Japan. Scientific evidence of the frost-resistance potential of these plants was critically important, indicative of their ability to survive the severe winters they would experience when they were exported and marketed there as pot-plants or garden plants. (This information was taken from Economic Native Plants of NZ, Brooker, Cambie, Cooper, DSIR, 1988.)

Some Wellington sites

Look for Blechnum penna-marina on Wellington's rugged south-west peninsula, from near the coast, right up to the summits. We have recorded it beside Hawkins Hill Rd, Terawhiti Station (lower Oteranga Valley, and head of Waiariki Valley) and on Long Gully Station. In WCC's Te Kopahou Reserve, it occurs in the lower Waipapa Valley and its true right tributary valley, and in Spooky Gully/Hāpe Stream.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 8, September 2016

September in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Blechnum vulcanicum, korokio, mountain hard fern

This fern derives its name from the volcanic region in Java where it was first collected. Found in the North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands, it is also in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific.

In NZ, korokio is much more common in the lowland and montane areas of the South Island than in the North Island, where you may find it in scattered localities in lowland and montane areas. Wellington trampers are more likely to see this fern out in the open, on banks and in road cuttings, but not often in forest. Listed below are Wellington sites where Chris and I have seen it.

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Blechnum vulcanicum – sterile fronds, plus some fertile fronds.

The rhizome is more often erect than creeping. The sterile fronds are light green; up to 35x14 cm, elliptic or narrowly triangular in shape, with a slightly harsh texture and hairs on the underside. The segments are in 10–25 opposite pairs, with the longer pairs nearer the base of the frond. You will see that the segments have no 'stalks' so they are described as 'adnate',which means 'attached to the frond's rachis by their own whole width'. Their margins are finely serrated, and may be pointed or blunt-ended. The most obvious and useful clue to identify korokio, is that the basal pair of segments points distinctly downwards, like an inverted 'v' (see image). This makes korokio easy to identify.

The fertile fronds are c.40 cm long, with scales at the base of the stipe (stem). As the frond matures, its many pairs of fine, linear, (very skinny) pairs of segments develop sori, (similar to e.g., Blechnum filiforme), and begin the process of reproduction. For identification, the basal pair of segments points downwards in an inverted 'v', just as the segments on the sterile fronds do.

Some Wellington sites

If you are tramping in the Wellington area, look for korokio on banks beside Hawkins Hill Road, as well as in the Waipapa and Waiariki valleys and Spooky Gully, and in the west, on Outlook Hill. It also occurs in East Harbour Regional Park, e.g., on Muritai and McKenzie tracks, and the upper Wainuiomata and Orongorongo valleys. Please let us know if you find korokio anywhere else.


We have not found any references to rongoā (medicinal) or other uses, for korokio.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 10, November 2012

November in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Brachyglottis repanda, Rangiora, Trampers' friend

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Brachyglottis repanda, Rangiora
Jeremy Rolfe

At the time of writing, large, dense clusters of tiny rangiora flowers in bud are appearing at the margins of bush and scrub, like pale, creamy-green froth, against the large, dark green glossy leaves. By the time you read this, the flowers will have produced seeds, carried by tiny white parachutes, to germinate wherever.

World-renowned botanist/ecologist Leonard Cockayne, (1855 – 1934), expressed surprise to find that among the world's approximately 1,500 members of the daisy (Asteraceae) family, NZ had so many tree and shrub daisies, (e.g. rangiora), an unusual phenomenon because most daisy species are herbaceous.

All daisies have 'composite' flowering parts - they comprise two types of flowers: (1) tiny, com- pacted, disc florets in the centre, and (2) a separate ring of florets, (each with one, large, showy petal), called ray florets, around the outside of the disc. Each type is a complete, functioning flower in itself.

Rangiora occurs in the North Island, and the South Island as far south as Kaikoura and Greymouth. A shrub or small tree, up to 6 m or more tall, it is a colonising species that grows in coastal and lowland forest, forest margins and shrub lands.

Rangiora's medicinal properties were well used by Māori and European settlers alike, the name itself being associated historically with lightness, brightness and health, as in the whakatauki, “Rangiora - he tohu mo te ora, (Rangiora, emblem of life and health)”. Yet, like many other rongoā (medicinal) plants, and other forms of ancient and contemporary medicine, it must be used with knowledge and skill,. For example, it is only the upper, green surface of rangiora leaves that is such an effective antiseptic poultice when bound over wounds, but taken internally, rangiora and its honey, are reputed to be very poisonous. In early times, a gum exuded by rangiora was a popular breath-sweetener when chewed (especially after a meal of whiffy dried shark), but if swallowed it could be fatal.

In some districts, rangiora is still called 'pukapuka', a word which already existed in te reo Māori in early times, meaning 'flat' or 'expanded', referring to the leaves, which can be be as big as 30 x 20 cm. Contrary to some beliefs, 'puka' is not a transliteration of the word 'book'. When pākeha settlers introduced books and paper, Māori extended the epithet 'puka', or the more emphatic 'pukapuka', to refer to these completely new items of communication which so resembled the underside of rangiora leaves.

Because of their size and the softness of the tomentum beneath, the leaves were often used to wrap newborns. - nature's own nappies, you might say. Trampers reckon they are the best-ever Nature Wipe, hence its well-known nickname 'trampers' friend' - don't forget to bury it though.

When off track, trampers may need a way of marking their otherwise unmarked route for a safe return. The judicious use of rangiora leaves laid on the ground, white-side-up, under a stone, or leafy rangiora twigs simply bent over to show their white underside, can be a very useful guide even at night, just as crown fern fronds and silver fern fronds are. Likewise, for an observant tramper following late behind a group, a small stick thrust through a turned-over rangiora leaf or even a message written on its underside, can indicate the direction in which to travel. Rangiora is indeed a tramper's good friend.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 5, June 2012

June in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Carex uncinata, Matau a Māui, Hooked sedge, hook grass, bastard grass

Although we trampers often call this native plant ‘hook grass’, or ‘bastard grass’, it is not a grass, but a member of the sedge family. Check the stems of sedges – they are triangular in cross-section. Hence the saying ‘sedges have edges’. The stems of grasses are round in cross-section.

There are 32 members of the Uncinia genus in New Zealand, all referred to as ‘hooked sedges’. Uncinia uncinata grows in forests in the North, South, Stewart, Chatham, and Sub-Antarctic islands, and in Hawaii. It is common in coastal to montane forests and scrub, and occasionally in bogs and swamp margins, up to 900 m above sea level.

Alongside tracks in the Tararua and Aorangi ranges, and in our regional parks, look for its dense tufts of grass-like, rough-edged, dark green, occasionally reddish green, leaves, 2 - 5 mm wide, and 10 - 45 cm or more long. In summer, the flower stalks, 10 – 90 cm long, rise from the tight clumps of leaves.

Most trampers will have noticed and probably cursed this plant! The tiny, hooked and barbed end of each seed snags on socks, hair, bird feathers, e.g., kiwi, weka, toutouwai / robin, and the coats of animals. Later, in a different place, when you, a bird, or an animal, pull off the seeds, or they simply fall off, the plant has succeeded in distributing its seed - a reason why hooked sedge is often found along the edges of tramping tracks. Check the paths in your garden – you may find a hooked sedge growing there, its seed having fallen off your socks or legs. If so, you have unwittingly aided the spread of a native plant onto your property. Chris has several examples of these ‘hitch-hikers’ flourishing on his property.

One Māori name for this plant is matau a Māui (Māui’s hook), referring to the legendary ancestor, Māui, learning from his mother about the effectiveness of a barbed hook for spearing birds. Māui is also credited with inventing the barbed fish-hook, which he used to catch and haul up Te Ika a Māui, ‘the fish of Māui’, the North Island.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 10, November 2013

November in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Cordyline australis, cabbage tree, tī kōuka

Many early New Zealand paintings featured this iconic tree species, tī kōuka, a long-lived NZ endemic in the Asparagaceae family, all members of which are monocots (short for monocotyledons). This means that their first shoots appearing above the ground are single, as you may have noticed with other monocot plants such as grasses, lilies, orchids and palms.

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Cordyline australis, Kōuka; Tī kōuka, Cabbage tree

Palms used to be known as 'cabbage trees' because their leaf tips could be eaten. During the 18th-_century voyages when Europeans discovered Aotearoa, it was noted that our Cordyline australis trees resembled palm trees, so explorers called them 'cabbage trees' and that name has stuck.

Tī kōuka can grow to 20 m tall. You see them in the North, South and Stewart islands, from sea level to 600 m altitude. They are often the only survivors in open spaces, because the surrounding bush has disappeared, or in swamps, which have not been drained. The trunks of old tī kōuka may be 2 m in diameter, and so durable that early settlers sometimes hollowed them out to use as chimneys. It is recorded that these often lasted longer than the huts themselves, and when the owners departed, they sprouted, starting a another long life.

Tī kōuka have many branches, and thick, rough, fissured bark. The tough, light-green leaves, crowded towards the end of the branches, are up to 1 m long and 6 cm wide. The large inflorescences, comprising hundreds of flowers, are 0.60-1.5 m by 30-60 cm and much-branched. The white, sweet-scented flowers appear in spring and produce whitish fruit c. 4 mm in diameter containing several black seeds. Their seedlings may appear in abundance in your garden because birds feed on the fruit.


Māori used tī kōuka leaves for cordage and weaving. In Fishing methods and devices of the Māori, Elsdon Best records that in 1885, a giant seine net (kupenga) 2090 yards (over 1.9 km) long was made in many sections, by hundreds of Māori at Maketu. The upper and lower ropes were of tightly-twisted leaves of tī kōuka, even stronger and more durable than flax! The floats on the top of the seine were made of whau, a very light wood. Rounded boulders in baskets acted as weights on the bottom. It caught 37,000 fish, the first time it was used!

Māori cooked and ate the tips of tī kōuka branches and produced high-sugar, energy-rich food by baking the roots, and sometimes the whole trunks, in deep earth ovens (umu) for days on end. Trampers will be keen to know that dead tī kōuka leaves make ideal fire-starters, and that strips from the leaves make strong, temporary boot-laces.

Cabbage tree decline

In the early 1980s, wilting and dying cabbage trees became common in Northland in disturbed, exposed habitats along highways, on farms, and in urban areas. This phenomenon peaked in the mid-1990s as the disease, caused by a bacterium carried by sap-sucking insects, spread as far as the northern South Island. The trees take three to twelve months to die, although some recover.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 11, December 2013

December in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

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Cordyline indivisa inflorescence
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Cordyline banksii

In the November 2013 article we described the most commonly occurring NZ cordyline species, tī kōūka. Cordyline is a word of Greek origin meaning a club. It refers to the extraordinarily thick rhizome (swollen root) typical of this genus. In early times, these rhizomes were a staple food for many Māori tribes whose diet was generally deficient in carbohydrates. Unfortunately the high carbohydrate content in cordyline became known to some unscrupulous European whalers in Ōreti, among them a McShane, who cut down all the cabbage trees in the vicinity, boiled and distilled their rhizomes, and produced a wicked rum nicknamed “Chained Lightning”! As a result, local iwi had to move elsewhere to survive, because their previously never-failing stock of tī kōūka had been made into booze.

We now describe Cordyline banksii, tī ngahere, forest cabbage tree. A shrub or small tree, it grows to 4 m tall, usually with several trunks branching from near ground level. The leaves resemble tī kōūka leaves, but are 1-2 m long and 4-8 cm wide, broad at the middle, and with a channelled leaf base. The long panicles (sprays) of very fragrant white flowers, similar to tī kōūka panicles, appear in November-January, producing fleshy, tasty white or blue berries 4-5 mm in diameter.

You’ll find this handsome plant on forest margins in the North and South islands, north and west of the main divide. There are several on the bush edge in the Wainuiomata Valley, just upstream from the Morton Dam and Water Treatment Plant. Cordyline indivisa, tōī, mountain cabbage tree, is called “indivisa” because its massive trunk almost never branches, and can reach to 8-m tall. You can't miss it in montane bush – it is conspicuously different from anything else, with its crown of huge, shiny, dark green leaves shaped like broad swords, 1-2 m long and up to 15 cm wide.

Often partly obscured by the leaves, the spectacular inflorescence is not like that of any other cabbage tree species. Up to 1.5 m long by 30 cm wide, and pendulous, it comprises hundreds of fleshy racemes, densely crowded like ripening bananas overlapping each other, covered with thousands of tiny purple flower buds and scented yellow flowers. Male and female flowers appear in December, and the blue berries are c. 6 mm in diameter. Look for tōī in well-lit places in wet, montane forest, from Great Barrier Island and the Hunua and Coromandel ranges, to Fiordland. Locally there are fine examples beside the 4WD road leading up to Mt Climie, Upper Hutt.

There are two more cordyline species in our NZ flora, C. kaspar and C. pumilio, both of which are found in the Far North, but we shall not describe them here.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 9, October 2011

October in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Corynocarpus laevigatus, Karaka

Karaka is the only NZ species in the Corynocarpus genus, a plant group confined to the south- west Pacific.

Distribution and habitat

If you're tramping around Wellington's wild coast, you occasionally find groves of naturally occur- ring karaka in sheltered valley sites where they can reach to c.15 m. in height, with dense, spreading crowns and stout, usually single columnar trunks. As in earlier Māori times, and even now, the presence of karaka can be a useful indicator of a potential camp site in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

Growth habit

Its dark green leaves are thick and leathery, about 15 cm. long and 7 cm. wide, with down-curved edges, and a glossy sheen, called a “pellicle”, protecting the leaves from wind-driven salt crystals. The tiny greenish flowers are followed by handsome orange fruit, so heavy and prolific as to weigh down the branches. But beware – the kernel inside each fruit contains a deadly poison, karakin. Māori developed a lengthy, laborious soaking and steaming process to eliminate this poison, because once treated, the kernels were an important source of carbohydrate. If you're tempted to try this yourself, don't! However, you may be assured that as long as the fruit is ripe, it is safe to eat the sweet, tangy outside covering, raw.

Some botanists believe that the presence of karaka in the Wellington region is solely due to hu- mans bringing it down from the north, as with pōhutukawa. This is why some Wellingtonians pull up, or choose not to plant, this handsome tree in their gardens or restoration projects, because karaka have become “weedy” here, rapidly becoming dominant, with hundreds of seedlings per square metre, crowding out almost everything else, and significantly altering the species composi- tion of the surrounding ecosystem.

Kererū are the only indigenous bird which can swallow karaka fruit. Apparently the fruit passes through the bird so fast that the kernel is voided in minutes, minus its tasty outer covering – very clever! Kererū numbers are increasing so rapidly in Wellington that staff and volunteers at Otari, the Botanic Garden and Zealandia are having to organise working bees to reduce the number of karaka seedlings and saplings.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 3, April 2014

April in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Cyathea dealbata, ponga, silver fern

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Trunk, 'pegs' and fronds of Cyathea dealbata
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe
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Young Cyathea dealbata fronds
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

You will see ponga, an endemic NZ tree fern species, in lowland to lower montane forest and shrub land, from sea level to 600 m, throughout the North and South islands, and on Chatham Island / Rekohu. As the most drought-tolerant of the Cyathea genus, it favours well-drained sites, so it is not common in the wetter parts of the South Island’s West Coast. The trunk can be up to 10 m tall and about 45 cm diameter at its base. The fronds, dark green above, extend roughly horizontally and are up to 4 m long and 1 m wide. As old fronds die and fall off, they leave behind persistent, prominent, light brown peg-like, stem-bases a little thicker than your thumb. Remember the mnemonic in the March 2014 article: ‘P’ for pegs, ‘P’ for ponga.

Cyathea means ‘cup-like’, referring to the form of the indusium which protects the unripe reproductive parts, called spores, on the underside of the frond. Dealbata means ‘whitish’, referring to the underside of the adult fronds, the basis of one of New Zealand’s best known emblems. Young ponga fronds lack the white underside.

The name ‘ponga’ is often mispronounced as ‘punga’, and that word is applied indiscriminately and incorrectly to all of our seven species of tree fern. Please avoid it because it is both wrong and confusing.

Look for the spiral coils of young fronds – koru – covered with brown hairs and scales, and also the white stalks of the mature fronds. Growing on the trunk, among the frond stumps, you will often see seedlings of trees such as kāmahi and five-finger and many species of ferns which have germinated on the trunks.


Māori used to spread the fronds on sleeping places in their whare. They used the poisonous, fibrous, woody part of the trunk as tips for some of their weapons. Ponga pith had many rongoa uses - it was used to make poultices, and taken internally, the gum was used to expel worms. Early European settlers in Southland built huts called ‘bungi huts’ with ponga walls. In some native forests, tree fern trunks are used to form “corduroy tracks”.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 6, July 2011

July in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Cyathea medullaris, Mamaku, Black Tree Fern

You can easily identify our handsome mamaku, (black tree fern), by the thick black stalks of its fronds, and by the characteristic way the fronds arch upwards from the top of the trunk.

Mamaku is native to New Zealand and the Pacific islands from Fiji to Pitcairn. Common in low- land forest in the North Island, and in mostly coastal parts of the South Island, it is the most nu- merous tree fern in gullies in the Wellington region. On mamaku trunks, you may have noticed the distinctive hexagonal scars left by the fallen fronds. The largest of our eight species of tree fern, mamaku often emerges above the canopy, reaching to 20 m tall, with fronds to 5 m long.

Medullaris refers to the medulla, the spongy white pith in the centre of young mamaku fronds. In 1871, a colonist, O’Carroll, reported, “The poultices the native doctor uses are the convoluted tops of the mamaku, fern tree, boiled ... a strong drawing and very quick poultice.” Even today, this bush remedy is still used in some parts of New Zealand.

Possums browse all the green parts of mamaku fronds, leaving only the midribs and side ribs - the result looks like a fish skeleton! Mamaku scales are like flattened brown hairs which, seen under a lens, are so sharply serrated, it's no wonder we itch when they get into our clothing! The right place for a handful of these scales is in your fire-lighting kit, because they make effective tinder.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 2, March 2014

March in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Cyathea medullaris, mamaku, black tree fern

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Cyathea-medullaris koru
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe
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Cyathea-medullaris bases of stipes, and scars on trunk
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

Early European settlers arriving in Aotearoa were astonished to see ferns-that-are-trees, a large plant form which they had never experienced. Raising elegant umbrellas on high, mamaku is our tallest, most massive, and probably our most distinctive tree fern species, with trunks c. 30 cm diameter reaching up to at least 20 m in deep, moist gullies. Their gracefully arching fronds can reach 6 m in length, and when they die and drop off, they leave distinctive, fibrous, hexagonal scars on the black trunk. These scars and the very thick, black stems of the fronds (up to 90 mm thick at the base and covered in scales with tiny spines) are features which distinguish mamaku from our other indigenous tree fern species, e.g. ponga (silver fern). When dried, these scales were valued as highly flammable tinder, carried as such by Māori when travelling.

We pause here to explain that, with experience, trampers can identify a mamaku from e.g., a ponga, simply by looking at the trunk. So when looking for bits of silver fern fronds to lay upside down as route markers, you can identify a ponga because instead of having hexagonal scars on its trunk like mamaku, ponga's dead fronds leave behind crowded, pale brown stem-bases c. 30 mm thick . We call them 'pegs' because they stick out c. 15 cm. all round the upper area of the trunk The handy mnemonic for this is 'P' for pegs, 'P' for ponga. We shall describe ponga in the April 2014 article.

Young mamaku fronds arise radially from the top of the trunk like spokes of a massive umbrella. They are called koru, or fiddleheads, frequently pictured in art works, their slow uncurling over several days a delight to behold.


Trampers might note that the external and internal medicinal (rongoā) uses of the pith / pitau are many. For example, raw or heated, when scraped, the pure white pith makes an excellent poultice, holding the heat particularly well and also having curative juices. 'Bush' remedies such as this are still being used with confidence in many areas today. Some bush workers even store pitau in their home freezer in case they need first aid in a hurry for a boil or a septic wound.

Mamaku is found in the Pacific Islands, from Fiji to Pitcairn. It is common in the North Island's lowland forests, mostly coastal in the South Island, but absent from the drier parts of Canterbury and Otago. It also occurs on Chatham Island / Rēkohu and Stewart Island / Rakiura. Wellington's most common tree fern species, it is often emergent above the canopy of regenerating forest. It prefers moist sites but is frost tender. You may have seen young mamaku fronds looking as bare as fish skeletons. This is because they are palatable to possums, who strip every shred of foliage off them.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 6, July 2014

July in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Cyathea smithii, kātote, soft tree fern

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Cyathea smithii with its skirt of stalks
Photo: Jeremy Rolfe

If you're ever on the Auckland Islands, take your balaclava off and salute the world's southernmost tree fern species. Now put out your hand and feel the surprising softness of the fronds, hence its common name, soft tree fern. OK, you don't need to go to the Auckland Islands to see kātote, a NZ endemic tree fern. Favouring cold, moist sites, it's a common sub-canopy tree fern of lowland to montane forests in the South Island, montane forests in the North Island, and is also common on Stewart and Chatham islands. Wellington trampers will recognise kātote as the most common tree fern species appearing in the forest as altitude increases.

Kātote trunks can reach to c. 8 m, and its c. 2.5 m fronds are held out rather stiffly, sometimes almost horizontally. So you will realise almost immediately how they differ from the much longer, curved fronds of some other cyathea species such as mamaku, described in our tree fern series in the March issue of The Tramper. Another distinguishing feature of kātote is that only the slender midribs of its dead fronds persist as a rattly skirt, like a piupiu* hanging down all round, from the top of the trunk. Note that the dead foliage itself does not persist, just the skinny midribs of the fronds. (Compare this with last month's whekī ponga's voluminous skirt of whole dead fronds hanging down).

Opinions differ on the palatability of the young frond bases. They were cooked and eaten by Māori, but Thomas Brunner, 1821-1874, described them as unpalatable, in fact exceedingly indigestible. Perhaps he tried them raw, owing to the extraordinary privations he experienced on his many, intrepid traverses. H. Beattie in 1920 described the kātote frond bases as having a sweet taste, like something that, “might make good jam”.

Dense golden-brown scales covering the frond bases form a silky-soft, nest-like mass in the centre of the crown, where the fronds originate. Carefully removed, so as not to damage the young fronds, these scales would probably make good tinder, like mamaku scales.

Cyathea smithii is named in honour of John Smith, 1798 – 1888, who started as the 'stove boy' heating the glass houses at the Botanic Gardens at Kew, and eventually became Kew curator. When he started there, Kew had only 40 fern species, but when he left after 42 years of service, he had assembled over 1,000, such was his lifelong interest in, expert knowledge of, and concern for ferns.


We have not found any references to kātote having rongoā (medicinal) properties. If you know of any, please let us know. Here's a useful, sibilant mnemonic for remembering that Cyathea smithii, soft tree fern, has a skirt of stalks.

*piupiu –a Māori 'skirt' made from hundreds of tightly-rolled lengths of dried flax, hanging vertically from a woven waistband, making a characteristically rattly sound as the wearer moves rhythmically, in e.g., a Kapa Haka performance


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 2, March 2015

March in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Dacrycarpus dacrydioides, kahikatea, white pine

At least 60 m - 65 m in height, kahikatea is believed to be our tallest tree species. With a lifetime estimated to be 600 – 1000 years, it is also one of our longest-lived. A NZ endemic, kahikatea is found throughout the country, including Rakiura/Stewart Island. It favours moist sites up to 600 m elevation, including swamps, fertile flood plains and river terraces. Locally you can see fine examples in the water catchment area in Wainuiomatā Valley.

During their long lifetime, kahikatea adopt a series of distinctive, characteristic shapes. Beginning in Stage 1, as straggly seedlings, these spindly young trees take many decades to reach Stage 2, which is an easily-recognisable conical form, tapering to a point at the top, like a Xmas tree. Hundreds of years later, these will have reached Stage 3, i.e., maturity, having gained much height and become columnar, with a tall, very slender crown. Finally, in Stage 4, the crown of the aging tree broadens dramatically and opens out into a rounded shape.

Kahikatea trunks can exceed 2.5 m in diameter. Older trunks are usually vertically fluted, and buttressed at the base. The grey bark often peels off in oval flakes, giving the trunk a 'hammer-marked' appearance. The young leaves are soft to touch and measure c. 7 mm x 2 mm. The scale-like, mature leaves are c. 2 mm x 1 mm.

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A luscious kahikatea receptacle, topped by a ripening seed.

Like all our NZ conifers (see February Tramper), kahikatea are usually dioecious. The male trees produce pollen 'cones', and the female trees produce seed 'cones'. Both types of cones are only c. 1 cm long and are found at the end of slender branchlets. The male cones are covered in scales which tightly overlap each other until, at pollination time, they are forced apart by the developing pollen underneath them, and millions of minute pollen grains escape into the air, to be carried away by the wind, to try their luck!

Meanwhile in another part of the forest, so to speak, millions of tiny female cones are developing and ripening. Each of them perches on the swollen, juicy tip of its twig, which is called a receptacle - see image. Each cone has a minute aperture, and guess what? At least one wind-driven pollen grain will enter the aperture and begin the process of fertilisation of the ovule, which usually takes several months.

The receptacles are often mistaken for fruit, because as they mature they turn red, attracting kererū, tūī and kākā, which gobble them up together with the ripened, black seeds. Entire female kahikatea trees can appear orange-red in autumn when this phenomenon advertises that the time has come for birds to plunder the bounty and thus propagate the species, a mutually-useful arrangement.


The juicy receptacles were also an important food for Māori - sweet, with a slightly piney aftertaste. One feast was recorded as serving 60 baskets of it. They also made a tonic by steeping chips of the wood in boiling water, then drinking the liquid. Kahikatea wood was their favourite for making bird spears, and the soot derived from burning the heartwood was used as a tattooing pigment.

From 1885 to the 1940s, the main use of the wood was in making parchment-lined butter boxes to hold 56-pound slabs for export. Kahikatea wood was ideal for this use because it is odourless, clean-looking and lightweight. This usage, together with concrete boxing for the Clyde Dam, led to the destruction of extensive stands of kahikatea. Because a towering kahikatea is a whole ecological community supporting 'nests' of epiphytic fern, orchid, shrub, liane, lichen, moss and sedge species, not to mention hundreds of vertebrate and invertebrate animal species, one can easily imagine the huge amount of indigenous biodiversity that was lost with the trees.

Botany 2015


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 3, April 2015

April in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Dacrydium cupressinum, rimu

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Rimu’s long, pendulous branchlets

Rimu's ancestry dates from c. 37 million years ago. It is an endemic NZ conifer member of the podocarp family, found in the North, South and Stewart islands, from sea level up to c. 700 m, with a lifespan of c. 700 to c. 1000 years. It has a conical form as a young adult and can grow to more than 60 m high, with a trunk of up to c. 2 m diameter. Its brown bark falls off in slabs, often c. 30 x 50 cm, revealing an attractive pattern underneath, like ripple marks on sand.

Juvenile rimu leaves are scale-like, 4-7 x 0.5–1 mm, strongly keeled on the underside and angled away from the stem. Adult leaves are similar, but only 2–3 mm. long. Note that unlike kahikatea leaves, they are prickly, and pendulous on long, flexible branchlets. This is a key difference between rimu and kahikatea. (See image). Pollination and fertilisation in rimu are similar to kahikatea in all respects, including time taken to mature. (Please refer to the March Tramper article).


Māori found a multitude of uses for rimu. The heartwood was used for making spears up to 6 m long, and bundles of the highly resinous scraps were bound together and lit for torches. They used the timber for making handles for a range of tools such as toki / adzes. They even used the soot from the burnt heartwood, as pigment for moko / tattoo. Medicinal uses / rongoā, included drinking the liquid in which pieces of rimu bark had been boiled, a proven cure for dysentery. The gum was used to staunch bleeding.

In 1777 Captain Cook recorded boiling up a brew of rimu and mānuka foliage with molasses, and fermenting it with yeast, as an experimental remedy for scurvy. Not surprisingly this 'medicine' proved very popular with his crew.

In the March article, you will have read about the tiny, juicy kahikatea female cones collected en masse in season by Māori, for sweet food. Female rimu cones were similarly enjoyed in season. They are also an essential food for the endangered kākāpō, to the extent that rimu and kākāpō appear to be interdependent. Rimu cones, abundant in a mast year, are rich in protein, essential fatty acids, carbohydrates, sugar, and particularly calcium, essential for strong egg shells, and for developing strong bones in the chicks. Kākāpō, being vegetarian, have no other source of calcium. When there is a poor crop of rimu cones, DOC supplies special supplementary food, replicating the nutritional values of the cones.

Continuing the theme of rimu usage, hundreds of thousands of NZ homes were built with rimu's superior quality timber - hard, strong and durable. For many decades it has been the main timber for house frames, weatherboards, doors, door frames, panelling, flooring, furniture, and plywood veneers. The beautifully figured heartwood is sought after for decorative uses, as in Wellington's Beehive. Now in short supply, rimu timber is often rescued from former usage and recycled


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 5, June 2014

June in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Dicksonia fibrosa, whekī-ponga

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Dicksonia fibrosa with voluminous skirt

You can’t miss this handsome, endemic, tree fern with its massive, reddish-brown trunk up to 60 cm in diameter covered by thickly matted fibres. It grows to 6 m tall with a crown of living fronds arising at a steep angle. Up to 3 m long, they are dark-green above, paler below, harsh when you clutch one and densely hairy at the base. Below the crown hangs a tightly-belted, strikingly voluminous skirt of complete, grey-brown, dead fronds, which accumulate there, lasting for years, obscuring the upper part of the trunk.

Whekī-ponga is a sub-canopy species that prefers fertile, silty, soils near rivers in lowland to montane forest, or semi-open country in the North Island from Auckland southwards. It is mostly coastal and lowland in the South, Stewart and Chatham islands. Uncommon in Wellington city, there are examples in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Karori Sanctuary, and Burrows Avenue Reserve, Karori. You will also see several in Riverstone Terraces Reserve, between Moonshine Road and the Whakatikei River, on the track above the true right bank of the Hutt River.

You may remember reading in the May Tramper article, about whekī-ponga's close relative, Dicksonia squarrosa / whekī. The presence of hairs on the stalks distinguishes the Dicksonia genus from the only other NZ tree-fern genus, Cyathea, which has hairs and scales – see the articles in the March and April issues of The Tramper.

The genus Dicksonia, is named after an 18th - century English botanist, James Dickson. The species name, fibrosa, refers to the thickly matted fibres covering the trunk.


We have not found any rongoā (medicinal) uses of whekī-ponga. If you know of any, please let us know.

Because the tough fibres effectively deterred rats, Māori split the whekī-ponga trunks to form slabs for lining buildings, e.g., pātaka / food stores, or forming food-storage platforms placed on top of posts.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, # 4, May 2014, page 9

May in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Dicksonia squarrosa, whekī, rough tree fern

We hope you're enjoying the challenge of identifying in the bush the two tree-fern species which we described for you in the last two issues of the Tramper. Let's recap. - you've already learnt that:

  • mamaku fronds have thick black stems which, when dead, drop cleanly off the trunk, leaving behind only octagonal scars;
  • ponga fronds when dead, break off the trunk but leave behind thumb-thick, pale fawn, 15-cm-long pegs 'to hang your hat on'.
* Squarrosa.jpg Δ

Now for your third tree-fern, Dicksonia squarrosa, whekī, rough tree fern. The fronds, when dead, break off, but leave behind on the trunk, 20-cm-long, skinny, black, stem bases, far too skinny to hang anything on.

Very rough to the touch, whekī fronds are dark green with paler green undersides, c. 3 m long , extending stiffly out from the trunk, not curving like mamaku fronds do. In the bush, you will have noticed the dead fronds, because even from a distance, they are a highly visible, easily identifiable, gingery-orange-colour, hanging down the trunk or lying on the ground, where they persist for a long time before decaying.

The Dicksonia genus may have evolved before the Cenozoic Era, which began about 65 million years ago. This would make it one of the most ancient fern genera still surviving today. Endemic to NZ, Dicksonia squarrosa can grow to c. 7 m tall, preferring moist sites in coastal or montane forest. It is common on the Three Kings, North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands, often forming groves, because it has the ability to reproduce by means of underground stolons which form new plantlets from buds at their tips. Also, if a whekī crown is damaged or killed by frost, it can sprout a new crown from the hairy, velvety buds on its trunk. This is why you will sometimes see whekī with 'two-storied' crowns. This unusual budding feature is of considerable use to landscape gardeners who know that just one, sawn-off whekī trunk can produce a whole fernery of whekī.

You'll be pleased to learn that there are only two genera of tree-ferns in the NZ flora: Cyathea and Dicksonia:

  • Cyathea species have hairs and scales.
  • Dicksonia species have only hairs.

Thus you can distinguish the genus of a tree-fern in the bush by checking whether the one you're looking at has fine hairs on its frond stems, (like cat or dog hairs), in which case it is a Dicksonia. If it has hairs and scales, (which are much broader than hairs, and often with tiny spikes), it is a Cyathea.


We have not found any references to rongoā (medicinal properties) in whekī. If you happen to know of any, we would be pleased to hear from you.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 6, July 2013

July in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Dysoxylum spectabile, kohekohe

Some club members have been treated to spectacular displays of kohekohe trees in flower this winter. Sheena Hudson reported festoons of flowers in Colonial Knob Scenic Reserve, where tūī and waxeyes were vying for the nectar. Lois Hope described as “wonderful” the display of flowers in Birdwood Street Reserve, Karori.

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Dysoxylum spectabile, Kohekohe
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Dysoxylum spectabile, Kohekohe

Dysoxylum means “bad wood”, referring to the bad odour and taste of the bark of some species of this genus; spectabile means “spectacular, eye-catching” – appropriate for a tree that at the peak of flowering can be a simply stunning sight.

The genus Dysoxylum is in the Meliaceae family, which comprises mostly tropical trees and shrubs in about 80 genera and 800 species, including mahogany. Kohekohe, a NZ endemic species, occurs in coastal to lowland forest in the North Island, and the northeastern tip of the South Island. It can grow to c.15 m tall, with a columnar trunk up to c. 1 m diameter, with pale-grey bark, and stout branches.

The leaves are compound, comprising a terminal leaflet, and 3 - 4 pairs of glossy, leathery, mostly opposite, leaflets. These range from 5 – 20 cm long, and 2 – 8 cm wide, the result often being an impressively large leaf. The flowers are up to 3 cm diameter, with waxy, greenish-white petals, and a subtle, spicy perfume. The flowering stems, up to 40 cm long, are usually cauliferous, i.e. growing straight out of the trunk, sometimes right down at ground level. The capsules containing the seeds are about 25 mm diameter, looking rather like bunches of green grapes. Look out for them from now until August – they will persist for about fifteen months, splitting open to reveal two seeds in each cell, with a fleshy, scarlet cover. Kohekohe may not flower each winter, because they are 'mast' flowerers, i.e. after a particularly abundant flowering, they may not flower heavily for a year or more.

Kohekohe forest used to form extensive tracts in warm, damp sites, most of which have been cleared for housing and farming. The remnants have been severely damaged by possums, but in reserves where Greater Wellington Regional Council, city and district councils, have been poisoning possums, these forests have been restored, e.g. Hemi Matenga Reserve in Waikanae, Raumati Escarpment Reserve, Whareroa Farm Park, Khandallah Park, Huntleigh Park, Otari-Wilton’s Bush, and Wellington Botanic Garden contain areas of kohekohe forest.


Among its rongoa uses, some Māori boil kohekohe bark to make a tonic, and the boiled leaves are used make a poultice for boils, wounds, skin disorders and inflammation. Early Pākeha settlers in Northland made culinary use of the leaves by using them as a substitute for yeast, instead of hops, when making bread


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 1, February 2013

February in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Elaeocarpus dentatus, hīnau

Elaeocarpus means seeds like olives and dentatus means toothed, referring to the flower petals of this endemic NZ tree. A lowland forest species, hīnau grows throughout the North Island. In the South Island, it reaches to Christchurch in the east and south Westland in the west. Its rounded crown is often seen in the canopy of tall broadleaf forest. Sometimes emergent, hīnau can grow to 20 m high, with a diameter of 1 m. The contribution made by such a long-lived tree, to the ecosystem of which it is a significant part, must be immense. A whole community of insects, birds and epiphytic plants, finds homes in its crown. In season, birds flock to eat juicy hīnau fruit, and it is likely that bees also visit its scented flowers.

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Elaeocarpus dentatus >Photo?: JEREMY ROLFE

Hīnau's adult leaves are usually alternate and are up to 12 cm x 3 cm. Occasionally finely serrated, they are broader towards the pointed tip, and their edges typically curl under. They tend to be arranged in erect clusters at the end of the twigs, making hīnau identification relatively simple, even from a distance. They have a firm texture and are dark green. (Compare the juvenile hīnau leaves, described below). If you turn over an adult hīnau leaf, you may see a few tiny triangular 'pocket' domatia on the underside, where the veins meet the midrib. The function of domatia is not known for sure, but they are usually inhabited by minute insects, so perhaps they have a symbiotic relationship.

Juvenile hīnau leaves are quite different. A tiny hīnau seedling (e.g. less than 15 cm high), has leaves shaped like the adult's, but they're flimsy, more serrated, and sometimes have brownish freckle-like splodges. By the time the seedling has grown to c. 1m high, it has developed long, narrow, parallel-sided leaves (up to 20 cm x 3 cm) that poke straight out from the main stem at right angles. They are often mistaken for juvenile rewarewa, but rewarewa leaves are paler green with much coarser serrations.

Hīnau flowers are bisexual, white, with ragged-edged petals, and lightly sweet-scented. They hang like lily-of-the-valley flowers, in racemes along the stem.

Hīnau fruit are c. 2 cm x 1cm, fleshy, pendulous, purple-brown, with kernels like olives. Māori used to stone-grind the kernels finely, producing a granular meal known to be highly nutritious. They then bound the mixture with water and cooked it in flat cakes, either in an umu or on hot stones. The result of this laborious process was considered a great delicacy, reserved for invalids or special guests.

Hīnau bark is greyish, with shallow vertical furrows. Occasionally hīnau trunks become hollow, yet characteristically, the trees continue to grow and thrive, producing enough sound, food-and water-conducting tissue around the hollow core to last for scores of years. Next time you're in Wellington Botanic Garden you may note two hollow hīnau still flowering and fruiting. One of them is beside the track, near the top of Hīnau Path, and the other is on the true right of Stable Gully.


The high tannin content of the bark was well known and used by Māori to dye black the scraped portions of flax garments, producing contrasting patterns. A solution of hīnau bark, which is highly astringent, was also used externally to treat some skin complaints. This was its main rongoa use.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 3, April 2011, page 12

April in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Fuchsia excorticata, Kōtukutuku, Tree fuchsia

Fuchsia excorticata, tree fuchsia, kōtukutuku, is one of the few plants in our indigenous flora that is deciduous, that is, it usually sheds its leaves in winter. So look now for the trees up to 12 m tall and with trunks up to 60 cm diameter, with peeling, brown, papery bark. The dainty, deep red flowers hang down on slender stalks.

Tree fuchsia is common on bush edges in lowland to lower-montane forests. It colonises and stabilises steep gullies in e.g. the Tararua Range. The NZ fuchsia species are the only fuchsia species in the world which have blue pollen. Fuchsias are sometimes described as ‘possum ice-cream’ because possums can browse the trees to death.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 11, December 2014

December in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Fuscospora cliffortioides, tawhai rauriki, mountain beech

This month our subject is mountain beech, which is easily distinguished from the beeches with bigger, serrate leaves. Mountain beech and black beech have the same Māori name, tawhai (beech) rauriki (small leaves), because both have small leaves. In the November Tramper we described black beech. The following table shows how similar mountain beech and black beech are, but highlights the main differences by bolding them.

FeatureMountain BeechBlack Beech
leaves10-15 mm x 7-10 mm10-15 mm x 5-10 mm
shapewider at the base; tip varying from rounded to pointed;
leaf margins curving downwards
wider at the base; tip rounded;
leaf margins flat, NOT curving downwards
textureleatheryfirm; surface puckered between veins
hairsnone on top; dense greyishwhite hairs underneathnone on top; white hairs underneath when young
trunkdiameter up to 1 mup to 1.2 m
barkpale on young trees;
dark brown and fairly smooth on older trees
pale on young trees;
black and vertically furrowed on older trees
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Mountain beech leaves
Left: upper surface. Right: lower surface
Photo: Rob Lucas. Scanned by Jeremy Rolfe

Distribution and habitat

Mountain beech occurs in montane and subalpine forest and scrub in the North Island from the Coromandel Peninsula south, and in the South Island. It is absent from Waikato, Mt Taranaki, Tararua Range, central Westland, eastern Otago and eastern Southland. It can thrive in the most severe conditions high in the ranges, yet it descends to sea level in the far south. Near the bushline, mountain beech is usually of reduced stature. Its foliage is distinctly and attractively layered. From October to January, look for red mistletoe / Peraxilla tetrapetala, and a yellow-flowered mistletoe, Alepis flavida, both of which favour mountain beech as a host.


From November to January, mountain beech produces minute flowers and tiny 'nuts', similar to those of black beech, with which it often hybridises. These 'nuts' appear from February to April. Like all our beeches, mountain beech has 'mast' years of heavy flowering and 'nut' production, as is happening this year - so DOC is distributing 1080 rodent poison over vast areas of our beech forests to counter the expected dramatic rise in rat, mice and stoat numbers, thus protecting native bird populations from these lethal invaders.

Particularly in the northern South Island, sap-sucking scale insects living in mountain beech trees excrete honeydew through translucent tubes onto their bark. Numerous species of native birds, butterflies, bees, and unfortunately, wasps, seek this sweet fluid, so you should always have anti-histamine in your First Aid kit.


Mountain beech has been used for making gates, fences and floors, but is not as durable as black beech, so has not been in demand by the timber industry. For this reason, it has not often been removed from our rugged ranges which it protects from severe erosion, so its most important 'use' is to leave it protecting our high country.

As with all the other beech species, we have been unable to find reports of Māori rongoā medicinal uses for mountain beech. Please tell us if you hear of any. Mountain beech, Fuscospora cliffortioides, was named after G. Clifford, a Dutch nobleman and patron of botany. The suffix ‘ioides’ means 'resembling Cliffortia', a genus occurring in South Africa.

This is the 42nd botany column prepared by Barbara and Chris. The Tramper editor would like to express his gratitude for their contributions which in his view have greatly increased the newsletter’s worth. It is to be hoped there are many more plants out there in the forest.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 8, September 2014

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.

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Red beech leaves. Left: upper surface. Right: underside, showing domatia.
Photo: Rob Lucas. Scanned by Jeremy Rolfe

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


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 10, November 2014

November in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Fuscospora solandri, tawhai rauriki, black beech

Tawhai means beech, and rauriki means small leaved. Māori used the name tawhai rauriki for both black beech and mountain beech because both have small leaves. You will be relieved to know that black beech is easy to distinguish from the big-leaved beeches which we have been describing to you recently, and after this, there's only one more beech species to learn!

Fuscospora solandri, black beech, was named after Daniel Solander, 1733–1783, a Swedish botanist who sailed with Captain Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand.

In the North and South islands, black beech grows in lowland and lower-montane forest, but like all our other NZ beeches, it is absent from Mt Taranaki. It is uncommon north of the Volcanic Plateau and East Cape. In the South Island, it extends to South Westland.

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Black beech leaves
Left: upper surface. Right: lower surface
Photo: Rob Lucas. Scanned by Jeremy Rolfe

Unlike silver, red and hard beech leaves, black beech leaves have no serrations, and remain mid-green all year round. At 10-15 mm x 5-10 mm, they are elliptic, noticeably smaller, and have rounded tips. Their texture is firm, almost leathery, and their hairless upper surface has plump bulges between deeply impressed veins. Young leaves have dense white hairs underneath.

As with the other NZ beech species, black beech flowers are minute, but, en masse, their crimson stamens can make the whole tree appear crimson. Flowering is in spring and summer, followed by tiny 'nuts' c. 6 mm. long.

Black beech and mountain beech are fairly similar in appearance, and when they are in the same area, they frequently hybridise with each other. So if you're tramping in montane beech forests, and you're finding it difficult to identify black beech, it may be because this is happening. Mountain beech is the subject of next month's article, so we shall be devising a table to help you distinguish one from the other, just as we did for red and hard beech.


Although at the time of writing, no rongoā uses for black beech are known to us, this species has played, and is still playing, a vital role in our industrial history. Despite its high silica content which blunted many a saw, its timber was used for an extraordinary variety of products ranging from bridges, railway sleepers, flooring, panelling and cartwheel spokes, to suites of fine furniture, and even paper. As with other NZ beech species, a solution made from its bark was much used by the tanning industry because of its high tannin content.

In the forest, sooty moulds blacken the bark, which gives the tree its common name. That very same black, furrowed bark is also the favourite home of the sap-sucking insect, Ultracoelostoma assimile, that produces honeydew, one of our prestigious, high-value exports. It is a favourite food of wasps as well. When you're tramping in beech forest, always remember to have fresh anti-histamine in your First Aid kit to counteract wasp stings.

Black beech make handsome, long-lived, evergreen specimen trees, their foliage being often attractively layered. Their maximum height is c. 23 metres, and their maximum trunk diameter is just over 1 metre.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 9, October 2014

October in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Hard beech, tawhai raunui, Fuscospora truncata

Look for hard beech along East Harbour Regional Park’s Main Ridge Track behind Eastbourne. At first sight, the leaves of this endemic tree are similar to those of red beech, as described in the September Tramper. Hard beech and red beech share the same Māori name - tawhai raunui – (big-leaved beech), and early botanists believed them to be the same species. To help you decide which beech species you are looking at in the bush, you might like to use the following table:

FeatureHard BeechRed Beech
leaves25-35 mm x 20 mm20-40 mm x 15-25 mm
leaf tip outlinenot pointedpointed
side veins5 or more3, 4 or 5
teeth8-12 each side, blunt6-8 each side, pointed, curved towards leaf tip
winter colourgreenred
trunk diameterup to 2 m or moreup to 2 m or more
bark on large treesvertically groovedshaggy vertical strips peeling upwards
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Hard beech leaves. Left: upper surface. Right: underside.
Photo: Rob Lucas. Scanned by Jeremy Rolfe

Try using this nmemonic to help you to distinguish hard beech from red beech: the word 'hard' has more letters than the word 'red' – hard beech has more side veins, and more teeth, than red beech.

Hard beech occurs in lowland forest and lower montane forest from near Mangonui, Northland, to Greymouth, on the West Coast, and the Wairau River in Marlborough. South of Greymouth, there is a 'beech gap', from which all beech species are absent, but south of the gap hard beech occurs in south Westland. All beeches are absent from Mt Taranaki.

Mature hard beech trees can be up to 30 m tall, with the trunks often buttressed at the base. The bark of the trunk is dark slate-grey to blackish. Fuscospora refers to the dark brown seeds; truncata indicates that the tips of the leaves are not pointed. Hard beech is monoecious, meaning that each tree bears male and female flowers. The red or orange stamens of the male flowers can be so numerous as to make the tree a spectacular sight in spring and early summer. Heavy flowering and seed production occur about every three years. This phenomenon, called ‘masting’, is characteristic of all our beech species.


Hard beech had no known use by Māori. In the late 1800s the wood was popular for railway sleepers, mine props, wharf and house piles, floor joists, framing and weatherboards. The wood is the most durable of our beeches, and the hardest, hence its common name. Its silica content quickly blunts saws, chisels and power tools, so no wonder it is not popular for wood turning or furniture making! Because the bark is full of tannins, it has been used to tan leather. Hard beech, a handsome tree, is sometime planted as a specimen tree where there is space.

Our five beech species are members of an ancient Southern Hemisphere lineage, which has representatives on other parts of the former southern continent of Gondwanaland – Australia, South America and New Caledonia. It is also known from fossils found in Antarctica.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 3, April 2013

April in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Geniostoma ligustrifolium var. ligustrifolium; hangehange

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Geniostoma ligustrifolium var. ligustrifolium, Hangehange

Tramping in the bush in early Spring, have you ever wondered which plant was producing a delicate, unmistakably almond perfume? The origin of that lovely perfume is hangehange, a small, commonly-occurring understorey tree or shrub which is often found at the bush margin but can grow to c. 6 m or more. It has opposite pairs of glossy, pale green leaves, even paler underneath, with prominent veins underneath as well. Some people mistake them for coprosma leaves but hangehange's are much softer in texture than any coprosma leaves, and have no obvious domatia (breathing pores) on the underside. Broadly ovate in shape, they can reach to c. 9 cm long and c. 5 cm wide, narrowing abruptly to an extended, pointed apex.

The perfume emanates from dense clusters of little green flowers, about finger-nail size, dangling from stalks that encircle the leaf axils at regular intervals along the slender, brittle twigs. Some flowers are female and some are hermaphrodite. Each has five petals, turned back like collars around the domed centre. After the flowers are pollinated, the seeds develop inside sharply-pointed green capsules which later turn black and split open, but stay hinged at the base, looking remarkably like wide-open birds' beaks holding the seeds.

Sometimes referred to as NZ privet, hangehange is a NZ endemic, the only NZ member of the numerous, worldwide Loganiaceae family. The genus Geniostoma has about 35 other members, scattered from Madagascar to Mauritius and Australia. In NZ, it usually grows in rocky, well-lit, lowland sites, from the Three Kings, down to the north of the South Island. Often prolific in the understorey, it is frequently overlooked but is a most useful plant. Read on …......


Recently I read in Murdoch Riley's Māori Healing and Herbal that hangehange foliage was used extensively by Māori as a food - for example there is a record from 1883 describing the leaves being used to wrap - and enhance the flavour of - food items for steaming in the umu. When in the bush last month I sampled a few leaves raw, and was agreeably surprised to find them very much like lettuce. The taste is not strong, but refreshing, so I have added hangehange to my list of native foliage which is readily available to munch as sandwich greens. You might like to try them yourself? The nectar is favoured by birds such as tūī, korimako, hihi and possibly waxeyes. It produces a delicious honey.

Hangehange leaves have rongoa (medicinal) uses, often having been used, with tītoki oil, as an ointment applied locally for skin infections. Murdoch Riley writes that Māori used the wood, “to generate fire,” but does not explain whether it was used like kaikōmako, (as the hard component), or like māhoe, (the soft component). Trampers will find the dead twigs useful as kindling. Māori weavers used the bark to produce a black dye, and in modern times, by using mordants, textile workers have produced not only black, but grey, purple and blue dyes from the leaves and fruit.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 11, December 2011

December in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Griselinia lucida, Puka, Broadleaf

Ten TTC trampers joined us for our annual November Native Plant Recognition trip. After climbing through Birdwood Reserve's second growth regenerating native forest, we continued around the Sanctuary's perimeter track, climbed Wright Hill and descended through Burrows Avenue Reserve to Karori Main Road - a green urban traverse at a sedate pace, because of so much botanical interest.

In Birdwood Reserve we admired an enormous Griselinia lucida, puka ,(but beware- this name is also given to another plant). This sprawling giant had morphed through several different stages in its 100-year life. Commonly called broadleaf, it usually starts life as an epiphyte, (as northern rātā often does), as a seed perched in the crotch of a large tree. We'll call that, Stage 1.

If it gets enough moisture and leaf litter there to survive, over the years it sends pale fawn, deeply-grooved roots down the outside of the host tree trunk, searching for nutrients and moisture from the soil. Meanwhile, up top, the broadleaf crown is also developing its very distinctive shiny, large-leaved foliage. You will have noticed broadleaf leaves that have fallen to the ground, about 15 cm. x 10cm, with sides of unequal length, so that they join the stalk at two different points. This Stage 2 of the broadleaf's life lasts for many years, during which the roots proliferate down and around the host's trunk, becoming so heavy that they top- ple the old host tree and the whole “ensemble” becomes horizontal, with the ancient host tree, now dead, inside.

The broadleaf trunks then gradually re-orientate themselves to grow vertically, often reaching to c. 8m. This is Stage 3.

We stress that broadleaf, like rātā, is never a parasite, just an epiphyte, using another tree as a crutch. Our TTC group saw two huge examples of Stage 3 of this natural phenomenon, one in Birdwood Reserve, and one in Burrows Avenue Reserve. Look for those pale, thick, deeply-grooved roots descending from the crown of a host tree, and the unusually large, shiny leaves. Broadleaf's erect clusters of tiny green flowers are followed by tiny purple fruit.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 4, May 2013

May in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Hedycarya arborea, Pigeonwood, porokaiwhiri

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Hedycarya arborea, Porokaiwhiri
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Hedycarya arborea, Porokaiwhiri

'Hedy carya' means 'sweet seed', 'arborea' is tree-like; 'poro' means ball, 'kai' is food, and 'whiri' is a flock of birds, hence the plant's fruit is the source of its Māori and common names.

There are about twenty members of the genus Hedycarya in Polynesia, New Caledonia and eastern Australia. Our species is endemic to New Zealand. It grows in lowland to montane forest on the Three Kings and North Island, and in the South Island as far south as Banks Peninsula in the east, and Fiordland in the west. Pigeonwood is shade-tolerant and usually grows in moist sites such as damp gullies.

Have you ever savoured the beautiful scent of the male flowers of pigeonwood? Surely it is one of the more memorable perfumes in the bush? It may seem surprising that a tree that often grows to 10 m tall with a trunk up to 50 cm diameter can produce such olfactory pleasure. Pigeonwood is dioecious, meaning that its male and female flowers are on separate trees. When the short-lived, pale yellow, 1 cm in diameter male flowers (pictured right) fall to the forest floor, notice how furry they are. Once pollinated, the female flowers produce clusters of bright-orange-red, 'beaked' fruit, 8 – 15 mm long, keenly sought and devoured by birds.

The bark, grey to dark brown, often gives rise to epicormic (suckering) shoots, just like tree fuchsia and māhoe. The darkish-green, shiny, leathery, leaves, 5 – 12 cm by 2 – 5 cm are mostly in opposite pairs on the branchlets, often slightly serrate towards the tip and hairy on the midrib and main veins. Look at the midrib - it is usually brownish-red, a useful diagnostic feature.


Māori made use of the excellent resonant qualities of porokaiwhiri wood to make a variety of musical instruments. It was fashioned into pahū (drums or gongs), and an instrument called pūrerehua (bull-roarer). Pākuru, a percussion instrument, comprised two porokaiwhiri rods, the longer one held in the mouth with one hand while the shorter rod tapped out a rhythm on it with the other hand. Meanwhile the performer sometimes mouthed the words of the song, producing higher or lower tones, by closing or opening his/her lips. Titi, the batons used in tititorea (stick-games), were made from pigeonwood.

A fire-stick of porokaiwhiri was sometimes chosen to light a sacred fire in which to burn the first hair cut from a child's head. The head was regarded as sacred, so the hair could be used as an agent for good or evil, thus it was deliberately destroyed by burning, ensuring that no one could use it for evil purposes (mākutu).


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 9, October 2013

October in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Hoheria sexstylosa, houhere, a lacebark species

Hoheria sexstylosa is the only naturally-occurring Wellington lacebark species. Houhere is the Māori name for all lacebarks, and the source of their generic name. NZ's endemic genus Hoheria is a member of the worldwide Malvaceae (mallow) family. Most of them have tough fibres in their stems or leaves, ideal for ropes, mats or nets. Probably the most well-known of these is the cotton plant.

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Hoheria sexstylosa, near Holdsworth Lodge

H. sexstylosa is found in lowland to lower-montane forest. It is widespread in the North Island, south from the Waitakeres, and in the South Island, from Northwest Nelson to Marlborough, Buller and Banks Peninsula. Growing to c. 8 m, with a trunk of c. 30 cm diameter, its stringy fibres form strong, lacy layers underneath its smooth, grey-brown outer bark. This layer so intrigued some early European settlers that they called the tree “thousand jacket”, whereas Māori called it “houhi ongaonga”, the houhere with leaves serrated like stinging nettle, (ongaonga). Like the bark of most trees, houhere's outer bark has many rongoā (medicinal) uses. The lacy inner bark was used for bandages, soft wrappings for babies, tīpare (headbands) and decorative poi coverings, etc.

Juvenile H. sextylosa leaves are small and rounded. Adult leaves are narrowly ovate, c. 10 x 2 cm. On a recce for TTC's botany trip in Burrows Avenue Reserve, Karori, we found a huge, ancient, multi-trunked tree with only one leaf within reach, all the rest being high in the canopy. Trying to pick it to inspect it, we found the stem was attached by a string of tough, creamy, lacy bark, thus solving the puzzle - the tree was a lacebark, possibly c. 100 hundred years old.

You have probably noticed that houhere flowers appear in autumn. They are hermaphrodite, having both male reproductive parts: stamens, and female reproductive parts: stigmas. The specific name 'sexstylosa' refers to the six styles ('specialised stalks') with their stigmas poised on top, ready to receive pollen from bees, flies or butterflies. In dense clusters, the dainty, white flowers, c. 2 cm in diameter, are non-specialised, being open in form and slightly perfumed, attracting a wide range of potential pollinators. The petals are often notched at the tip.

The unusual fruiting structures are arranged radially in circular clusters of 6 or 7, joined at the centre, green to start with, then changing to a distinct 'pinky-brown'. Each developing seed has a 'wing' or 'sail' attached, making it easier for wind or water to distribute.

Unfortunately, for many years, Wellingtonians have been planting Hoheria populnea, a northern lacebark species, in their gardens, and this city is now overrun with it - it has become weedy. Its leaves are very much broader, and more rounded than H. sexstylosai's slender ones, often with a purplish tint underneath. It has rapidly - one might even say aggressively - colonised Wellington's wild places, so please consider planting our own Wellington lacebark instead.

The main reason why we chose H. sexstylosa for this article, is that it is the only lacebark species that belongs in Wellington. Once numerous, like so many other natives, it has been wiped out by development and is now a seldom-seen refugee. Next time you're tramping the rugged hinterland of the Wellington southwest peninsula, keep your eyes peeled for the few refugia where this handsome tree survives e.g. the upper Waiariki Gorge and above the main forks in Te Kopahou Reserve. It is also a numerous component of Tararua forests - look for it there.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 6, July 2017

July in the hills with Chris Horne

Hymenophyllum demissum, irirangi, piripiri, drooping filmy fern

Origin of the names

Hymenophyllum means ‘membranous leaf’. The Greek word for ‘membrane’ is ‘hymen’; the Greek word for ‘leaf’ is ‘phyllon’; ‘demissum’ comes from the Latin word ‘demittere’, and its adjectival form ‘demissus’ means ‘drooping, arching and hanging down’. ‘Piripiri’ refers to the fern’s growth habit of ‘keeping close together’, densely populating part of a forest floor. ‘Drooping filmy fern’ refers to a distinctive feature of this fern.

Distribution and habitat

Irirangi grows on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, Te Wai Pounamu/South Island, and on the Kermadec, Rakiura/Stewart, Rekohu/Chatham and Antipodes islands. It is our most common filmy fern in lowland to montane forests except for the drier parts of the eastern South Island. Often forming carpets over extensive areas of the forest floor, it also grows on banks, logs, tree roots and rocks, and sometimes perches on trees as an epiphyte. You will sometimes see areas of the forest floor with a dense cover solely of irirangi. This fern may have a chemical defence against competition which prevents seeds from other plants germinating among it, or slowing their growth if they do germinate.


Irirangi has a slender, long-creeping rhizome.

Growth habit

The stalks/stipes are 4-17 cm long, stout, smooth and usually lack wings. There are narrow wings along the length of the stems/rachises. The fronds, which arch stiffly from the stalks, are 7-25 cm long x 3-15 cm wide, elliptic or ovate, pale green or bright green, and smooth. Because irirangi’s fronds are mostly one cell thick and translucent, like those of Leptopteris hymenophylloides and L. superba (The Tramper May and June 2017), it can easily be confused with those two species when they are immature. Despite irirangi’s fronds looking delicate, they rarely curl up in dry weather.


The spores are held in sori. These usually appear in pairs on the ends of the pinnae/segments which are oblong with smooth margins – see image. The fronds are often sterile.


Māori used the fronds as ‘a bitter tonic’, according to Charles Jeffs, 1888, as noted on a pressed specimen in the King Tawhiao Collection at Te Papa (Specimen 1499). The fronds were also used as a scent (H W Williams 1975).

Where to look for drooping filmy fern

This widespread fern is common in Wellington city’s reserves, where it is often the only member of the Hymenophyllum genus. You can see it in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, four of the Botanic Garden’s five native forest areas, Centennial Reserve, Miramar and Burrows Avenue Reserve, Karori, etc. Look for it when you tramp in lowland to montane fore


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 7, August 2017

August in the hills with Chris Horne

Hymenophyllum dilatatum, matua mauku, irirangi

Origin of the names

Hymenophyllum means ‘membranous leaf’. The Greek word for ‘membrane’ is ‘hymen’, and for ‘leaf’ is ‘phyllon’; ‘dilatatum’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘broadened, expanded’. Note: ‘irirangi’ is also the name of Hymenophyllum demissum described in July’s Tramper. Matua means ‘parent’, or more particularly ‘father’; mauku is the name applied to filmy ferns in general. There is no English name for matua mauku.

Distribution and habitat

Matua mauku grows on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, Te Wai Pounamu/South Island, and Rakiura/Stewart, Rekohu/Chatham and Auckland islands. It is common throughout, in coastal to montane forests, except for the drier parts of the eastern South Island. It usually perches as an epiphyte on trees; it also grows on fallen trunks, sometimes on banks, and rarely on the ground.


Matua mauku has a slender, wiry, long-creeping rhizome.

Growth habit

Matua mauku is NZ’s largest filmy fern, and one of the most distinctive in the genus. The stalks/stipes are 2-15 cm long, stout, smooth, with narrow wings for some of their length. The stems/rachises have broad wings along their length. The fronds are 8-40 cm long x 4-15 cm wide, ovate or narrowly ovate, bright green and smooth. The pinnae/segments are 2-3 mm wide. Because matua mauku’s fronds are mostly one cell thick and translucent, like those of Leptopteris hymenophylloides and L. superba, (Tramper May and June 2017), it can easily be confused with those two species when they are immature.


The spores are held in very broad sori which develop slightly sunk into the ends of the broad pinnae/segments – see image.


There are no recorded Māori or Pākeha uses for matua mauku. Where to look for matua mauku Look for this widespread fern when you tramp in lowland to montane forests, e.g., in Otari-Wilton’s Bush and in the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges. Look for its smooth fronds with smooth margins, the broad flat wing along the stem/rachis and much of the stalk/stipe, and the very broad segments/pinnae. It is worth carrying a hand lens to study these features.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 1, February 2014

February in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Hymenophyllum nephrophyllum, kidney fern, raurenga

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Hymenophyllum nephrophyllum. A single fertile frond

This strikingly beautiful, endemic, filmy fern is one of New Zealand’s twenty-nine species in the family of filmy ferns, the Hymenophyllaceae. Kidney fern is in the genus Hymenophyllaceae. ‘Hymeno’ comes from the Greek word for ‘membrane’, and ‘phyllum’ from the Greek word for ‘leaf’. The first section of the second part of its name, ‘nephro’ comes from the Greek word for ‘kidney’, which aptly describes the shape of the shiny, green fronds. Kidney fern, was formerly Cardiomanes reniforme, and then Trichomanes reniforme.

Look for it in the North Island, on the West Coast of the South Island, on Rakiura / Stewart Island, and on Rekohu / Chatham Island. You may see it thriving in a wide range of habitats in lowland to montane forests, from damp forest on the West Coast, to humus on exposed lava fields on Rangitoto Island.

The glossy, translucent fronds are 3-10 x 4-13 cm, on stipes (stalks) 5-25 cm long. Have you noticed how the fronds curl up tightly in dry weather, to reduce moisture loss, then recover quickly after rain? Kidney fern creeps for many metres over the forest floor, sometimes forming extensive patches. It can climb banks and rock faces, and scramble up tree trunks.

The reproductive parts, spores, are contained in sori, which are crowded around the upper margin of the fronds, and slightly sunk into them. Each sorus is protected by a 'lid' of colourless issue called an indusium. When the spores are mature, the indusium shrivels, enabling the spores to be released.

Raurenga often grows in patches in which little else can grow. This is because it produces a phytotoxin which inhibits the root growth of other plants.

In New Zealand Ferns, published in 1921 by H B Dobbie, and revised by Marguerite Crookes in 1952, Dobbie described this plant’s unusual, un-fern-like appearance: “I shall never forget my first sight of it. I could not believe it was a fern.”


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 4, May 2017

May in the hills with Chris Horne

Leptopteris hymenophylloides, Heruheru, Crape fern, Crepe fern

Origin of the names

‘Lepto’ comes from the Greek word for ‘thin’; ‘pteris’ is the Greek word for ‘fern’; ‘hymenophylloides’ means ‘resembling Hymenophyllum’, which is the name of the genus of the filmy ferns. These will be the subject of a future article. ‘Heru’ in Te Reo means ‘comb’ – please refer to the Uses section below.

Distribution and habitat

This endemic fern grows on Te Ika a Māui/North and Te Wai Pounamu/South islands, and on Rakiura/Stewart and Rekohu/Chatham islands. Heruheru is common throughout the country, although it is more common in northern areas. Look for it in lowland to montane forests up to 1000 m, on damp banks along tracks and creeks, and also on exposed sites on open ridges.


Heruheru’s erect, woody, trunk/rhizome can be 50 cm tall, and occasionally up to 100 cm tall.

Growth habit

The stipes/stalks of the fronds are 15–50 cm long, pale brown, with scattered hairs, and ear-like lobes at the base. The dark green fronds are finely divided, flat, and almost triangular, 20-100 cm long x 15-35 cm wide, and have scattered hairs. The segments/pinnae are all in the same plane.

The fronds of heruheru, and its relative, the striking Leptopteris superba / Prince of Wales’ feathers,^footnote^', are mostly one cell thick and translucent, just like the fronds of filmy ferns, with which they can be confused when immature. Place your hand under a heruheru frond, or the frond of one of the filmy ferns, then move your hand from side to side. Shadow-like, you will see your hand moving on the other side of the frond.


The sporangia, the capsules which contain spores, are scattered on the undersides of the fronds, not grouped in discrete sori, as in the ferns described so far in The Tramper. This distinctive feature of the Leptopteris genus led to it being classified as a member of an ancient family of ferns, the Osmundaceae.


Māori used the hard stipes/stalks of the fronds as teeth for heru/hair combs. (Best, 1899, 1908). No uses of heruheru for rongoā or food have been recorded in NZ. Have you heard of any? Heruheru was exported to England in the 1800s, together with several other species of ferns, during a ‘fern craze’ there.

Where to look for heruheru

Look for this widespread fern whenever you go tramping in Wellington city’s reserves, and on tramps elsewhere up to 1,000 m above sea level. Its delicate fronds are an eye-catching feature in many bush areas.

* This species will be described in the June article


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 5, June 2017

June in the hills with Chris Horne

Leptopteris superba, heruheru, Prince of Wales feathers, crape fern, double crepe ferns

Origin of the names

The Greek word for ‘thin’ is ‘leptos’; the Greek word for ‘fern’ is ‘pteris’; ‘superba’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘magnificent, exalted’. ‘Heru’ in Te Reo means ‘comb’ - see Uses section below.
Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘crape’ = crepe; ‘crape fern’ = NZ fern with tall, dark-green plumes; ‘crepe’ = gauze-like fabric with wrinkled surface.

Distribution and habitat

On Te Ika a Māui/North Island, this fern is rare in Northland and Coromandel, and common south of the Bay of Plenty to Wellington. On Te Wai Pounamu/South Island, it is abundant in Westland. It also occurs on Rakiura/Stewart Island. Look for it in cool, wet, dense, montane forests up to 1,000 m elevation, and, rarely, in dwarf form in subalpine scrub, up to 1,350 m elevation.


Leptopteris superba has an erect trunk/rhizome up to 100 cm tall.

Growth habit

The stalks/stipes of the fronds are 1.5-8 cm long, pale brown, with brown, woolly hairs and ear-like lobes at their bases. The dark green, woolly, hairy fronds are 25-100 cm long x 8-25 cm wide, and taper equally towards both ends. There are 35-60 pairs of segments/pinnae crowded along the stem/rachis. The lowest segments are only 0.5-1 cm wide. Their ends, which are linear, stick up at right angles to the plane of the frond, like the pile of a carpet.

The fronds, like those of Leptopteris hymenophylloides, are mostly one cell thick and translucent, just like the fronds of filmy ferns, with which they can be confused when immature. Place your hand under a frond, or the frond of one of the filmy ferns, then move your hand from side to side. Shadow-like, you will see your hand moving on the other side of the frond.


The sporangia, the capsules which contain spores, are scattered on the undersides of the fronds. This is in contrast to the ferns with discretely-grouped sori, as described in articles earlier than May 2017. This distinctive feature of the Leptopteris genus led to it being classified as a member of an ancient family of ferns, the Osmundaceae.


Māori used the hard stipes/stalks of the fronds as teeth for heru/hair combs (Best, 1899, 1908). Māori bruised the fronds to a pulp to make a poultice for bruises. They used the fronds to line hangi/ovens when steaming tawa kernels (Best, 1903).

Leptopteris superba was exported to Victorian England in the 1800s during a ‘fern craze’ there, where it remains popular. Fibre from this fern was once used for orchid-growing, but fibre from sedges and tree ferns is easier to obtain.

Where to look for heruheru/Prince of Wales feathers

Look for this widespread fern whenever you go tramping in cool, wet montane forests up to 1000m elevation, or occasionally higher. Its delicate, filmy-textured, fluffy fronds are a photogenic feature in our forest parks and national parks. In NZ Ferns and Allied Plants, Dr Patrick Brownsey describes this plant as “One of our most beautiful ferns”, rightly called superba.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, # 2, March 2013, page 7

March in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Mānuka, Leptospermum scoparium; Kānuka, Kunzea robusta

Lepto = thin; spermum = seed; scoparium = like a domestic broom
Kunzea = named after Gustav Kunz; ericoides = resembling heath (Erica)

Did you notice as you tramped along the Ridge Track in East Harbour Regional Park soon after leaving the top of Wainuiomata Hill Road the variety of species of young, broadleaved trees, including five-finger and māhoe, flourishing under the canopy of the mānuka shrubland? This community of young trees, ferns, climbers etc, is a fine example of the role that mānuka, a pioneering species, plays in the regeneration of native forest on land that has been cleared by fire, by accident, or for farming.

Have you noticed the forest of very large, historic, kānuka in Wellington Botanic Garden, below the Met Office building? This is an outstanding feature of the five areas of native forest in the garden.

Mānuka is a shrub or tree, growing to 10 m tall. A NZ native, it occurs from lowland to sub-alpine areas in dry or swampy sites in the North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands. It also occurs in Australia.

Kānuka is a shrub or tree growing up to 30 m. A NZ endemic, it occurs in well-drained, lowland to montane areas on the Three Kings, and in the North and South islands. It often colonises land recovering after a fire, and, like mānuka, plays a role in the natural recovery of disturbed sites towards eventual forest. It can grow for over a century, but cannot regenerate in its own shade, so is eventually over-topped and replaced by other tree-species. Use the table below to help distinguish mānuka from kānuka:

FeatureLeptospermum scopariumKunzea robusta
Part of plantMānukaKānuka
Trunk diameterup to c. 15 cm60 cm or more
Foliage (grasp it firmly)pricklynot prickly
Flowers; diametersingle; c. 10 mmin clusters; 4 – 6 mm
Seed capsulesc. 6 mm diameter; hard, woody; persist2 – 4 mm diameter; not woody; fall off early
Capsule lidsroundedsunken
Seedsreleased in high temperaturesin same season as flowering

Mānuka is smaller than kānuka, and has larger flowers and larger seed capsules than kānuka.

Since the article was originally publised the name of kanuka has changed. What was called Kunzea ericoides in the article is now Kunzea robusta. Kunzea robusta is the largest and most widespread of the 10 kanuka species and is the only species found in the Wellington region away from sandy coastal areas. Kunzea ericoides is now known to be restricted to the northwest South Island.


TTC trampers will have noticed that mānuka's strong, hard-wood, rot-resistant branches are often laid as “corduroy” on many a mucky track.

Mānuka was used by Māori for waka decking, fish hooks, fishing rods, traps for eels and other fish, garden tools, spears, clubs, and long poles, called huata used to thrust through the palisades of enemy pā. An infusion of pounded and boiled mānuka and kōwhai bark was applied to the back to ease pain. Mānuka's white gum was also used as an emollient for burns and scalds.

Captain Cook’s crew used the leaves of mānuka to make a spicy tea. In the early days of settlement in Otago, men smoked mānuka bark mixed with tea leaves, as a substitute for tobacco. Mānuka honey, which is collected from mānuka and kānuka, is dark-coloured and strongly-flavoured, however it needs to be remembered that not all varieties of mānuka have the well-known medicinal properties for which consumers are sometimes charged a premium. Kānuka wood is very hard, so has often been used for tool handles and wharf piles. Kānuka gum mixed with oil from tītoki, was used as a perfume.

Both species have been used for firewood that produces great heat, and for fence posts. Kākāriki / parakeets use the leaves and bark of both species to rid themselves of parasites.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 7, August 2013

August above the bushline with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Leucogenes species, NZ edelweiss

Edelweiss is one of our many mountain daisy species, renowned world-wide for their beauty and diversity. The Asteraceae (daisy) family is where our four endemic NZ edelweiss species nestle. They are all woody sub-shrubs, often domed in shape, usually less than 15 cm high, but are all easily identified as edelweiss by their silvery-white, densely-packed foliage, and their white, woolly bracts that look just like petals, surrounding the central, yellow disc florets.

Club members are familiar with our logo – Leucogenes leontopodium, the North Island edelweiss. A few years ago some members realised the logo was the European edelweiss, so in late 2010 the General Committee ratified members' choice to change it to our North Island edelweiss instead. Most of you will know L. leontopodium, found at low-to-high-alpine altitude in both islands, from Mt Hikurangi to Nelson and Marlborough. Immortalised in the tramping song, Slopes of Mt Alpha, the 'shapely lady' concerned had edelweiss adorning her hair, so we assume it was L. leontopodium.

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Leucogenes species,
Photo: Barbara Mitcalfe

The name 'leonto-podium' is from the generic name of the European edelweiss. It means lion-footed, referring to the central, grouped, yellow florets of the compound flower, resembling a cat's foot-pads. The surrounding petal-like bracts look like a flower c. 25 mm in diameter. The dense rosettes of pointed, silvery leaves form an attractive, geometric pattern, and the whole shrub often adopts a cushion form. In the Tararuas, look for it in fellfield and rocky sites. If you are traversing the Tararua tops, between East Peak and West Peak, you may notice the area where this edelweiss hybridises with another member of the Asteraceae family in the vicinity, producing a mosaic of prostrate intermediate forms which look like tiny savoury scrolls on the ground.

Leucogenes grandiceps

Leucogenes grandiceps, the “large-headed” edelweiss is the South and Stewart islands' edelweiss , widespread from low-to-high-alpine altitude. However its flowers are no larger than those of the other species. It is not found in the North Island. Often growing on rocky outcrops, this species is usually shorter-stemmed than L. leontopodium, with broader, shorter leaves.

Leucogenes neglecta

Leucogenes neglecta is the Marlborough edelweiss. It was only relatively recently recognised as different from L. grandiceps, hence the epithet of 'neglected'. Botanising in Marlborough in the late 90s, we remember lively discussions about how it might eventually be classified. Its rocky habitat is like that of the other species, but it has noticeably smaller flowers, silvery-blue floral bracts, leaves that are more closely appressed to the stems, and a much looser form instead of a more cushiony habit. Its Conservation Threat Status is Naturally Uncommon. Look for it on rocky outcrops when you're tramping between the Wairau and Awatere catchments.

Leucogenes tarahaoa

Tarahaoa is the Māori name for South Canterbury's Mt Peel, so keep your eyes peeled for this species when you are there - but watch where you tread - it is a Mt Peel endemic, with the Conservation Status of Nationally Vulnerable. To quote from Threatened Plants of New Zealand, (Canterbury University Press), “The plants are extremely vulnerable to trampling by livestock such as sheep, and by humans. There is some evidence to suggest that the population is in decline. Some of the more accessible plants have disappeared recently, possibly through illegal collection.”

L. tarahaoa grows in a restricted area, high on the narrow spur leading to the summit. It often forms very firm, domed cushions, standing proud of the soil surface by up to 15 cm. or more - see image. The whole plant is silvery-grey, with neat, densely-packed rosettes of narrow, pointed leaves and woolly, white bracts reaching up and out, like fingers, to greet you. (See back page for ‘L tarahaoa in flower’.)


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 8, August 2015

August in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Libocedrus plumosa, kawaka; Libocedrus bidwillii, pāhautea

The name Libocedrus is derived from Greek: libernos, incense, and kedros, cedar, because the wood is scented. NZ's two libocedrus species are long-lived endemics. They are usually called NZ cedars, but professional botanists say we should call them NZ cypresses because they have the scale-like leaves of cypresses, not the needle-like leaves of cedars. They have very tall, unbranched, lower trunks, topped by conical-shaped crowns, like Xmas trees. As emergents, they are easily recognised from a distance by this shape, plus their distinctive grey-brown bark hanging off in long, narrow, vertical strips.


Libocedrus plumosa - 'plumosa' describes its ‘feathery’ leaf form.


North Island - sea level - 600 m elevation, from Te Paki to Kawhia in the west, and Gisborne in the east. Formerly it was a common forest type in western Waikato, but is believed to have been logged to near-extinction. South Island - as far south as Westhaven Inlet.

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Kawaka and Pahautea
Photo: ROB LUCAS (with permission)


Libocedrus bidwillii. Mountain cedar was named after plant collector John Bidwill (1815–1853), believed to be the first European to climb Ngauruhoe. Its Māori name 'pāhautea' means 'grey-bearded', probably referring to the thick clusters of Hymenophyllum malingii, an unusual, silvery-grey, endemic, epiphytic, filmy fern which usually clothes its trunks. It is named after Christopher Maling, (1841–1916), a NZ surveyor.


250 – 1200 m elevation. North Island - Coromandel Peninsula to the Tararuas. South Island - throughout the west side, but only scattered on the east side. Stewart Island - absent.

Reproduction in Libocedrus

Libocedrus are monoecious: a kawaka tree bears both female and male cones, and so does pāhautea. Libocedrus are unique among NZ conifers, because they bear seed cones with woody bracts (modified leaves). Pollen produced by the male cones and carried on the wind, enters the tiny apertures (micropyles) of the female cones, and fertilises them.

The seeds of both species develop one large wing and one small wing. These make a seed spin like a helicopter rotor, facilitating its wind-driven dispersal beyond the drip-line of the parent tree. This makes it more likely that the resultant seedling will thrive because it will not have to compete with the parent tree, for nutrients.


The dark-red wood of both species has never been available in large quantities. Kawaka wood has been used for cabinet-making and roofing shingles. It is so resistant to burning, that it has sometimes been used to make fire-doors! Pāhautea wood, light, but very durable, has been used for boat decking, railway sleepers, roofing shingles and weather-boards.

Thanks to Jeremy Rolfe for the image, scanned from Dawson and Lucas NZ’s Native Trees, p. 78.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 86, no 7, August 2014

August in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Lophozonia menziesii, silver beech, tawhai

Scientists at the Allan Herbarium, Landcare Research, Lincoln, have reclassified the New Zealand members of the beech genus Nothofagus into two genera, using analyses of DNA sequences and morphology. Under this new classification, the NZ beeches are:

Fuscospora fuscared beechtawhai raunui
Fuscospora truncatahard beechtawhai raunui
Fuscospora cliffortioidesmountain beechtawhai rauriki
Fuscospora solandriblack beechtawhai rauriki
Lophozonia menziesiisilver beechtawhai
Silverbeech.jpg: 800x1200, 94k (2016 Nov 13 22:03)
Silver beech leaves

Who hasn’t been impressed by the twisted, gnarled, moss and lichen-covered multiple trunks of silver beech trees in the cloud-forest near Alpha Hut? They can grow to 30 m tall, with trunks to 2 m in diameter. The common name comes from the bark, which is silver-grey, particularly on young trees. They grow in montane forest and subalpine shrubland from Coromandel Peninsula through the North and South islands, mostly on the wetter sides of the ranges, and down to sea level in the far south. They are absent from Mt. Taranaki and the Ruahine Range.

Silver beech leaves stay on the tree for several years, unlike those of the other NZ beech species, which retain their leaves for only a year. The dark-green, alternate leaves are rounded, thick, 6-15 x 5-15 mm, with small, rounded teeth. Tawhai is ‘monoecious’, meaning that its small, inconspicuous female and male flowers grow on the same tree. The wind transfers the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, which produce hard, dry, 'nuts', c. 5 mm long, each with two or three 'wings' to facilitate wind dispersal.

'Lophozonia' – (crested zone) - refers to parts of the fruiting structure; ‘menziesii’ refers to Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), surgeon with Capt. George Vancouver on the Pacific voyages of the ship ‘Discovery’.

About every three years, like the other NZ beech species, silver beech has a good flowering year, called a mast year, but it does not flower at all in some years. This winter, DOC’s massive programme of aerial 1080 pest/animal poison distribution coincides with the present, NZ wide, mast year. The enormous volume of seed falling from the country’s beech trees is causing an explosion in the numbers of rats in our native forests. Once this bountiful food source is eaten, hungry rats and stoats will resort to killing hundreds of thousands of native birds, lizards and invertebrates, possibly causing extinctions. This pattern of wanton killing has been continuing since ship rats and stoats were introduced in the 1800s.


Māori obtained a black dye from tawhai, for colouring tī kōuka / cabbage tree and flax leaves used in weaving. The dried bark contains about 7% tannin, and was the main source of bark used by a Nelson tannery. We have not found any mention of tawhai having rongoā properties.

The timber is strong but rots when exposed to the weather. However, it is one of our better timbers for steam-bending. Coopers used to bend it into shape to make tubs, baskets and wine casks. Its attractive grain and pale pink to deep-red colour make it popular for furniture and wood-turning.

In the following editions of The Tramper we plan to describe the other four NZ beech species. We thank David Ogilvie, who requested a description of the re-naming of the NZ beech species.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 4, May 2011, page 12

May in the hills with Chris Horne

Melicytus ramiflorus, Māhoe, Whiteywood

Melicytus ramiflorus, māhoe, whiteywood, a member of the violet family, is endemic to New Zealand. Because it is not highly palatable to possums, it has become a common indigenous tree species in forests in the Wellington region.

Mature trees can reach 10 m, or more, with several trunks over 40 cm in diameter. You may have noticed that they often have many slender, upright branches, called epicormic shoots, near the base of their pale trunks. In Spring, māhoe’s young, light-green leaves highlight its presence in gullies, but on sites exposed to gales, its twigs are often bare of leaves. Look on the forest floor for decaying māhoe leaves which produce delicate skele- tons showing their network of veins.

Māhoe is dioecious, with male trees producing male flow- ers, and female trees producing female flowers. Both sexes flower from November to March. Female māhoe produce violet to dark-blue fruit from November to April, in dense clusters along the branches.

Māori made fire by rubbing the soft, dry wood of dead māhoe with a pointed, hard stick of dry kaikōmako.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 1, January 2012

January in the forest with Chris Horne and Barabara Mitcalfe

Metrosideros perforata, Akatea, Clinging rātā

When tramping in January, February or March, look for this slender, woody, vine, up to 15 m tall, with small white or pale-pink flowers, c. 2 cm across, crowded towards the end of the twigs. The conspicuous brush-like stamens are an invitation to bees, bellbirds and tūī to collect pollen and/or nectar. The tiny leaves, 6-12 mm x 5-9 mm, are thick, usually rounded, have down-curved, smooth edges, and are arranged in opposite pairs. Their undersides are dotted with glands, giving them a perforated appearance, hence ‘perforata’.

Young akatea use numerous fine aerial roots to cling to the bark of host trees that they use merely for support – they are not parasitic. In open sites, where there are no trees to climb, they can form shrub-like mounds.

Akatea grows in coastal and lowland forest and forest margins in the North Island, and in the South Island as far south as northeast Canterbury, and Martin’s Bay in the west. Should you be lucky enough to visit the Three Kings Islands, look for it there too.

Māori used the tough, pliant stems of some species of rātā vines for the tikitiki (topknot) style of hairdress- ing. From a rātā vine, they made a small ring about 50 mm in diameter, gathered their hair together on top of the head, slipped the ring over the hair, then slid the ring down close to the head. When you break a bootlace, a pliant stem of a rātā vine may be the solution!

And remember that some of the rātā honey you enjoy may be derived from Akatea.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 2, March 2012

March in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Metrosideros robusta, Northern rātā

Te rātā whakaruruhau, “rātā, the giver of shelter”, describes the reverence which Māori felt for these huge, long-lived trees that sheltered a heavy load of other plants perching in their crowns.

Northern rātā is one of five endemic NZ tree rātā species, all of which can become towering forest giants, emergent at 20-30m in height, with trunks measuring several metres in diameter – we measured the diameter of one in the Akatarawa Forest at 16 tramping boot lengths! Northern rātā leaves have an intra-marginal vein encircling the leaf just inside the outer edge, a characteristic of the metrosideros genus. Dark green, neatly elliptic in shape, the leaves measure about 30mm x 20mm, but it's that tiny notch at the tip that is the clinching clue, so remember: “n” for notch = “n” for northern.

Trampers in tall forest may not notice northern rātā in the canopy, but the pale, flaky bark of the trunk is a giveaway, and bright crimson leaves on the forest floor can indicate its presence. Masses of scarlet, staminate flowers adorn the crown from November to January and their nectar produces a distinctive honey. The inner bark of rātā was used extensively for dressing wounds and as a treatment for ringworm. Because of its extraordinary strength, heaviness and durability, rātā, “ironwood”, was often chosen to make logging rails, bogies, and even cogs in the milling machines.

Northern rātā used to be numerous in coastal to lower montane (up to 700m a.s.l.) forest from North Cape to Westland. Imagine Te Ahumairangi / Tinakori Hill when it was covered with thousands of scarlet-flowering northern rātā, delighting nectar-feeding tūī and korimako. When these rātā were fired to create space for pasture, they burnt for months on end. (“You would think we had set the world on fire”. wrote Albert Kilmister, a 19th-century Karori farmer).

Northern rātā sometimes germinates on the ground, as most trees do, but often starts life as a wind-blown seed in the crown of a large, mature tree such as a rimu. It is not parasitic, just epiphytic. Over many 100s of years, its roots snake down towards earth, some even encircling the supporting tree's trunk. Eventually these roots fuse together like a trunk, by which time the old, supporting tree has declined and rotted away. This process, misunderstood, was responsible for some people regarding rātā as a strangler.

Possums can kill a huge, mature rātā in two years by preferentially eating its leaves, buds and flowers. Decline in pollinators such as bees, lizards, bats and nectar-feeding birds also threatens the survival of the species. A further threat in and near urban areas is the presence of overwhelming numbers of pōhutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa, with which it hybridises. Northern rātā, Metrosideros robusta, is a naturally-occurring Wellington species, once very numerous here. Pōhutukawa is not a naturally-occurring Wellington species. Humans introducing and planting it so extensively here may have risked the eventual loss of northern rātā as a separate species.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, no 1, February 2017

February in the hills with Chris Horne

Microsorum pustulatum subsp. pustulatum, Kōwaowao, Hound’s tongue

Microsorum means ‘with little sori’; pustulatum means ‘raised blisters’, referring to the lumps on the upper side of the fronds of this fern, which match the clusters of sori below. The repetition of ‘pustulatum’ in the botanical name is to separate it from a closely related species in Australia. You will find the Māori name easy to remember, as a dog’s bark resembles ‘wao wao’. The common name comes from the outline of the juvenile frond.

Distribution and habitat

Kōwaowao is widespread. It ranges from the Kermadec Islands and Three Kings, right down to the Auckland and Antipodes islands, and to Rēkohu/Chatham Islands. It is abundant throughout, except in central Otago. You will often see it creeping on the ground, or over rocks, or epiphytic (growing perched on other plants). It occurs in montane forest, scrub and open areas, usually in drier habitats.


A prominent feature of kōwaowao is its fleshy, far-creeping, branching, often slightly bluish-green rhizome, 4-10 mm in diameter, with blackish-brown scales pressed against it.

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Hound’s tongue, kōwaowao

Growth habit

The fronds, leathery and very variable in form, are bright glossy-green above, and paler below, with prominent veins. The juvenile fronds have simple, undivided, strap-like blades, narrowly elliptic, 7-25 cm long x 1-3 cm wide.

The adult fronds are 6-45 cm long x 4-30 cm wide. The fronds have up to twelve pairs of pinnae/segments up to 17 cm long x 4 cm wide, with blunt points and smooth or wavy margins, and adnate bases i.e. they are attached to the rachis by their whole width. The fronds are attached to the rhizome by pale brown stipes/stalks 2-25 cm long. This form is described as pinnate, which you can liken to a feather with its filaments either side of the quill.


The underside of fertile fronds bear numerous orange-brown round sori, sunk into the underside of the pinnae/segments, creating bulges on the top side of the frond. The sori are clustered in single rows each side of the main and secondary veins. There may be up to forty sori on each lobe of a frond. When the sori ripen and open, they release the spores, which are spread by the wind to germinate in new sites.


The Te Urewera Tūhoe people cooked the young fronds as a vegetable in hangi/earth ovens. Some Wellington sites Hound’s tongue is common in the city’s reserves. You may spot it covering several square metres of the forest floor, or climbing trees, including the rough trunks of pine trees on the Town Belt. You may also see it scrambling up stone or brick walls.

Barbara Jean Mitcalfe, 25.11.1928 - 7.1.2017

Sadly Barbara died suddenly on 7 January. She loved her work as co-author of the series of sixty-four articles describing native plants, which we began in The Tararua Tramper in April 2011. In earlier years, she enjoyed the opportunity to discuss native plants and ecosystems with members of TTC’s bush-craft courses. Barbara co-led her last TTC botany trip on 13.11.2016. The report on that trip appears in the March Tramper. Barbara's orbituary appeared in the Dominion Post.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, no 2, March 2017

March in the hills with Chris Horne

Microsorum scandens, Mokimoki, Fragrant fern

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An adult mokimoki frond

Microsorum means ‘with little sori’; scandens means ‘climbing’, referring to the climbing habit of this fern. It is closely related to hound’s tongue/kōwaowao, described in the February Tramper. When crushed, a frond of mokimoki smells like freshly cut grass. After drying, it has a sweet and enduring aroma, hence the name ‘fragrant fern’.

Distribution and habitat

Mokimoki is common in coastal and lowland forest from North Cape to as far south as Franz Josef, Westland. It also grows on the Chatham Islands, and in Australia, including Norfolk Island. Thus it is native to New Zealand, but it is not endemic. Look for it creeping on the ground, or over rocks, or climbing trees. Mokimoki prefers damper habitats than kōwaowao, which is the reason it is rare on the east coast of the North and South islands.


Mokimoki’s rhizome is 2-4 mm in diameter, far-creeping and much-branched. It is densely clad in dark brown scales up to 5 mm long. The stipes/stalks, 3-10 cm long, are pale brown and slender and have very narrow wings.

Growth habit

The fronds, dull green and thin, have three different forms, often occurring on the same plant: 5-35 cm long x 5-10 mm wide, strap-like, and tapering to an obtuse tip. This form occasionally bears sori. 20-30 cm long x 5-10 cm wide, irregularly divided with the lobes arranged either side of the mid-rib, mainly in the middle section of the frond. The lobes are from 1-5 cm long, sometimes on only one side of the frond, and they gradually taper from the base up to 10 mm wide. The terminal pinna/segment is long, and usually bears sori. 35 - 50 cm long x 18 cm wide, with up to thirty smooth-edged lobes up to 8 cm long or more, tapering from their bases. The terminal pinna/segment is long and usually bears many sori.


When the round, orange-brown sori on the underside of fertile fronds ripen and open, they release the spores which are spread by the wind to germinate in new sites.


Māori used mokimoki as a scent for their hair and bodies, and in their whare. Where to look for mokimoki Mokimoki is a common forest fern, so look for it wherever you tramp, in bush up to about 1000m above sea level.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 4, May 2012

May in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Myoporum laetum, Ngaio

In my garden, one of NZ's fastest-growing trees, ngaio, lives up to its description, 'laetus', which means ‘happy’. Its glossy, dark olive-green, oil gland-dotted leaves c. 80 mm long by c. 40 mm wide, are the picture of health, and tūī think the bright mauve, fingernail-sized fruit are “just the berries”! But beware, all parts of the plant, especially the leaves, are to some degree poisonous to humans and stock. Tūī however, must be immune, because at this time of the year they spend all day a-chortle, gorging on the fruit and not succumbing to anything worse than melodious drunkenness.

Ngaio has dark brown, deeply- furrowed bark, and small clusters of white flowers c. 20 mm in diameter, each with a few tiny purple dots. The leaf buds are typically black-brown and sticky – in fact if they aren't, you've probably got an unwelcome Aussie look-alike instead, called boobialla.

Boobialla is a member of the Myoporum genus, its botanical name is Myoporum insulare. Boobialla is unwelcome in NZ, because unfortunately it readily hybridises with our NZ ngaio. Probably mistaken for NZ ngaio, it was propagated and planted extensively by many local nurseries and councils in the 1970s and 80s, particularly on the west coast, north of Wellington. As a result, it has become a pesky weed in Pukerua Bay and Queen Elizabeth Park, Paekakariki. Remember - a good way to tell the difference between ngaio and boobialla is to look for those black-brown, sticky leaf buds on NZ ngaio.

A well-grown ngaio can reach to c. 10 m in height, with a rounded, spreading crown. Found in the Kermadecs, the Three Kings and the North, South and Chatham islands, it is usually coastal but can also grow in warm sites further inland. The only other Myoporum species in the NZ flora is a sprawling one with larger leaves, Myoporum rapense sub-species kermadecensis.

Like many other NZ native trees, ngaio is a handy source of rongoa (medication) in the hills. The toxin, ngaione, is in fact the medicine. It is concentrated in pale, see-through oil glands in ngaio’s leaves. Just as kawakawa leaves do, a hot poultice of shredded ngaio leaves will greatly hasten the healing of a septic wound. Trampers also appreciate that the juice of bruised ngaio leaves, when rubbed on exposed arms and legs, successfully deters sandflies and mosquitoes.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 10, November 2011

November in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Olearia colensoi, Leatherwood

Trampers who have struggled through leatherwood in the ranges, know all too well how its thick, leathery, serrated leaves, and stout, hairy, interlacing branches hold you back, gouge your bare legs, and even rip your clothes. On the other hand, if in a storm you can't reach the relative safety of the forest below before nightfall, leatherwood may provide just enough shelter for you to camp in your sleeping bag and cover, or wrapped in your tent.

You will find this tough, rigid shrub, in montane to subalpine scrub just above the bushline, from Mt Hikurangi in the Raukumara Range, East Cape, all the way south to Rakiura/Stewart Island, where it grows at sea-level.

Leatherwood/tūpare is a New Zealand endemic member of the world's largest plant family, the daisies, numbering about 25,000 species worldwide. It is NZ's largest native plant family too: 32 genera and 290 species, including edelweiss (Leucogenes), which features on our club logo, our world-famous mountain daisies (Celmisias) and even our “vegetable sheep” (Raoulias).

The 8-20cm by 3-6cm grey-green leaves have densely hairy, white or buff undersides, probably to reduce moisture loss. Tiny tubular florets without petals are grouped in a rounded purplish- brown cluster 2-3 cm across, followed by seeds with “parachutes” like dandelions.

In A selection of poems, songs and short stories, Harold W Gretton included this song familiar to many trampers: (Air: Isle of Capri)

‘Twas on the top of Mount Alpha I met her
Beneath the shade of a leatherwood tree.
She had a razor-sharp slasher beside her.
She said: Come down to Cone Hut with me ...

Look in our Tararua Song Book for the rest of this traditional tramping ballad, although near- impenetrable leatherwood is more likely to have you burst into curses and grab your slasher rather than burst into song.

view (MaoriName:Kōhia:)

This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 8, September 2013

September in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Passiflora tetranda, kōhia, NZ passion flower, NZ passion fruit

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Showing leaves, flowers, and at the top, a tendril

If you have seen woody, cobra-like coils, up to 14 cm in diameter, curling on the forest floor, and then climbing into the canopy to reach the light, you will have seen this endemic vine. Kōhia grows in lowland and montane forests, from near North Cape to Banks Peninsula. It spreads over the sun-lit canopy, reaching the tops of trees 30-40 m high, as reported in some forests on the Hauraki Plains.

Passiflora means “passion flower”; tetrandra refers to the flower’s four stamens.

Kōhia is a tendril-climber, like the sweet pea, cucumber and grapevine. It produces slender, delicate tendrils up to 10 cm long, from its stems. When first formed, a tendril is almost straight, and as it grows it slowly waves around. When it encounters the trunk or branch of a potential supporting plant, the tendril's tip wraps around it, thus securing support. Once the tip has attached to it, the remaining part of the tendril coils into two spirals, one left and the other right, which increase its elasticity, drawing the stem closer to the support. (Compare this mechanism with that used by bush lawyer, a ‘hook climber’ – see August 2012 article).

Kōhia’s coils are flexible trunks, round in cross-section, and its branchlets are very slender. The leaves are alternate, lance-shaped, 5-10 cm long by 2-3 cm wide, leathery, dark green and glossy above, and paler below, with slightly wavy edges.

Kōhia is dioecious, so has male and female flowers on separate plants. Between October and March, the yellowish-green female flowers produce pear-shaped, bright orange fruit, 2-3 cm in diameter, which contain wrinkled seeds in a red pulp. We trampers find the fruit disappointingly dry, but birds, possums and rats seek the pulp, so we sometimes see the torn remains of kōhia fruit strewn on the forest floor.


Like so many of our indigenous plants, kōhia had numerous uses in pre-European times. Expert at making lashings out of vines, Māori used kōhia to bind fence posts, platforms and the frames of whare. Because kōhia wood burns very slowly, they used partially hollowed-out sections of its sturdy stems for carrying fire when travelling. They also made a scented body oil by crushing, steaming and pressing kōhia seeds to extract the oil which they then perfumed with the leaves of aromatic plants. Used medicinally, it was applied to soothe sores and wounds


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 3, April 2012

April in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Pennantia corymbosa, Kaikōmako,

Kaikōmako’s small, black, fleshy fruit, which appear in autumn, are a food source for bellbirds, also known as kōmako, or korimako. The first part of the botanical name is derived from the name of a Scottish botanist, T. Pennant, and the second part relates to the way the flowers around the margins of the multi-flowered inflorescence open first.

Kaikōmako, a canopy tree that grows up to c. 12 m tall, with a trunk up to c. 50 cm diameter, is endemic to New Zealand. It is found in coastal and lowland-forest margins to 600 m a.s.l., from near Kaitaia southwards in the North Island, and throughout the South Island. Juvenile kaikōmako have slender, flexible, closely interlacing, zigzag branchlets. This “divaricating” habit is a feature of c.13% of New Zealand’s woody plant species, a high proportion compared with the floras of other countries. The tiny leaves, 7-15 x 5-10 mm, on these juvenile plants, are shaped like a duck’s foot.

Once the plant becomes a few metres high, the divaricating branching is replaced by a more open branching form, bearing leaves c. 5 x 3 cm, that usually have lobes toward the apex. In spring, clusters of small, fragrant flowers appear on the ends of the branchlets. The flowers do not produce nectar, but night-flying moths take the pollen, as do flies during the day.

A wide variety of Māori legends exists about how Māui stole fire from Māhuika, who in her rage at him concealed fire, and the secrets of fire-making in the timbers of kaikōmako, māhoe and patē trees. Māori learnt that kaikōmako is a very hard wood. To start making a fire, they used a stick of dead, sound, dry kaikōmako and rubbed it vigorously back and forth in a piece of dead, dry māhoe, or patē, both soft woods.

One of the McDonald series of early NZ movies showed a Māori couple in Te Urewera, c.1920, one using a bow-drill with a kaikōmako spindle rotated vigorously in a dry log, while the other blew gently as the first signs of smoke arose from the log, then added dry grass as the tinder.

Were you one of those TTC club members at the memorable meeting on 21 October 2008, when Steven Kohler, a member of the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, showed us his video of fire-making without matches or a lighter, then demonstrated the method outside the clubrooms on the car park? He first wielded his kaikōmako stick hard and fast, to produce a smouldering groove in the māhoe. Then he swiftly gouged out the hot, smoking, carbonised wood, placed it in a 15-cm diameter woven flax basket already half full with scales from mamaku tree fern. With the basket on a metre-long string, he whirled it around furiously while we all waited, agog! Soon, to our amazement and delight, smoke began to pour from the basket, then, as a thrilling finale, the basket burst into flame. Māori must have arrived at this ingenious fire- making method, by experimenting over many generations. It shows how dependent some early humans were on the combination of a hard wood and a soft wood, to enable them to cook and keep warm.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, no 11, December 2012, page 20

December in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Phormium tenax, Harakeke, Flax

After Captain Cook’s first voyage botanists named harakeke, Phormium, from the Greek word for basket, referring to its Māori use, and tenax, meaning tough. Both species are endemic to New Zealand. The leaves of both species grow in the form of a fan, from the centre of which grows the flowering stem, (kōrari). The lower surfaces of the leaves are fused together.

Harakeke is swamp flax, often seen in dense stands such as Taupo Mire west of SH1, north of Plimmerton, and on intermittently flooded land. e.g. as low river terraces. It occurs in the North, South, Stewart, Chatham and Auckland islands. Harakeke leaves are 1 – 3 m by 5 – 12 cm, stiffly erect for most of their length. The stem is 5 – 6 m tall, with dull red flowers followed by erect, plump, three-sided, shiny brown seed capsules that are usually less than 10 cm long by 2 cm wide.

Phormium cookianum, wharariki, mountain flax

Wharariki is the flax we see in many habitats from coastal cliffs to mountain slopes, in the North, South and Stewart islands. Look for it on cliffs on the Wellington coastline, and above the bushline in the Tararua Range. Wharariki leaves are usually less than 2 m long, and inclined to droop. The stem is up to 2 m tall, with mainly greenish flowers often with tones of orange or yellow. These are followed by green, dangling, twisted, seed capsules usually more than 10 cm long, and almost circular in cross-section.


Plant identification is not always straightforward. If you see a flax plant whose description appears to be a mixture of the measurements and other characteristics of the two species described above, perhaps you are looking at a hybrid between them.

Cultural uses

All parts of harakeke were used by Māori – it was critically important to them for clothing, cordage, and medicinal (rongoa) purposes. They named more than sixty forms of harakeke, according to leaf shape, colour and quality of the muka (fibre). The leaf blades are used for making kete (baskets), mats and for the woven patterns in tukutuku panels. The muka, extracted from the inside of the leaves by scraping off their green covering, then dried, is used to make strong ropes, fishing nets and clothing. Rene Orchiston collected many of these varieties of flax from the wild, and grew them at her property near Gisborne. A selection of these was propagated and planted in the grounds of Victoria University, and in the Botanic Garden.

The area around Foxton used to be the centre of a thriving flax industry. By 1830, flax fibre was being shipped to Britain, and for many decades the industry produced twine, rope and fibre for wool bales, but the advent of yellow-leaf disease, and alternative fibres such as jute led to the end of the industry.

The orange gum from the leaf bases was used as an antiseptic wound dressing. There were many other (rongoa) uses. The buoyant, dried stems were used for flotation.

We trampers can use strips of the leaves of either flax species as a substitute for string or rope, perhaps to repair a boot which is falling apart, or even to make a tourniquet. The bases of the leaves can be used as splints. Tūī, korimako and starlings seek flax nectar, getting the yellow pollen on their heads, then transferring it to other flowers. Check the next flax flower you see – if there is no insect inside, suck the flower to sample the sweet nectar, if the birds have left you any.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 8, September 2015

September in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Phyllocladus trichomanoides, tānekaha, celery pine

We focus on tānekaha, the largest of the three species in the Phyllocladus genus, then briefly describe the other two members of the genus.

When you see tanekaha, you will realise that its common name, ‘celery pine’, is an apt description. What look like oddly-shaped leaves are, in fact, flattened branchlets called phylloclades, which function as leaves. Hence the name Phyllocladus, which means leaf-like branches, making the members of this genus unique among our endemic conifers.

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Tānekaha phylloclades

Tanekaha grows in lowland forest up to 800 m elevation; in the North Island, from North Cape to Whanganui and Waipukurau, and in the South Island, in northern Marlborough, Nelson and Buller. It is a graceful, pyramidal tree up to 20 m tall, with a trunk up to 1 m diameter, with smooth, grey-brown bark, usually covered with lichens. Often it has no branches for the first 6 m, above which slender branches radiate from the trunk horizontally.

A fascinating feature is that seedling tānekaha do have real leaves which are up to 20 mm long, reddish-brown, narrow, parallel-sided, and deciduous. These are replaced by the phylloclades, which are diamond-shaped to fan-shaped, lobed, 15-25 x 10-15 mm, and arranged in two rows.


Tanekaha is monoecious, so both female and male cones appear on the same tree. Clustered at the tips of the branches, the stalked male pollen cones (c. 10 mm long), dark purple when young and crimson when mature, produce pollen which the wind carries to the blue-purple female seed cones, (c. 3 mm diameter), developing at the margins of the phylloclades. Each cone will produce a seed.


To dye harakeke / flax mats and korowai / cloaks, red-brown, Māori pulped the bark, added water, threw in hot rocks to boil the mixture, then soaked the items in it. They used the tannin-rich bark to tan nets, and as a rongoā, to control dysentery. In the 19th century, the bark was exported to Germany to make red and pink dyes. Spinners still use it for dyeing, producing a wide range of colours, depending on the mordant used. The strong, durable wood has had many uses, including threshing machines, mine props, bridges, fish hooks, and, because the wood is so flexible, walking sticks and fishing rods.

Related Phyllocladus species

Phyllocladus toatoa, toatoa, grows from sea level to 600 m elevation, from Te Paki south to Awakino in the west, and Lake Waikaremoana in the east. It is a tree up to 15 m tall, with a trunk up to 60 cm diameter, and smooth, grey bark. The wedge-shaped, leathery phylloclades, 40-60 x 20-40 mm, are sea-green when young and bronze-coloured when mature. This species can be monoecious or dioecious.

Phyllocladus alpinus, mountain toatoa, grows in the North Island in subalpine forest and scrub, from 900-1600 m elevation, usually on or near the upper margins of beech forest, from Coromandel Peninsula southwards, including the Tararua Range, (except Mt Taranaki). In the South Island, in the west, it grows down to sea level. A shrub, or tree up to 9 m tall, it has a trunk up to 40 cm diameter, with smooth, grey bark. Unlike the two species above, the phylloclades, 5-25 x 3-12 mm, are attached to ordinary twigs, and usually greyish. This species is monoecious.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 88, no 11, December 2016

December in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Pneumatopteris pennigera, Pākau, Gully fern

It is wise to learn the botanical name of this fern, or its Māori name, rather than its common name, so as to avoid confusing its name with gully tree fern, Cyathea cunninghamii. Pneumatopteris means ‘breathing fern’; ‘pteris’ is the Greek word for fern and 'pennigera' means feathery. Some members of the genus have breathing pores at the base of the segments (pinnae).

Distribution and habitat

Pākau is common in damp, shaded, lowland to montane forests on The Three Kings, North, South and Rekohu/Chatham islands. In the southern South Island it occurs mainly in coastal areas. It is absent from Rakiura/Stewart Island. It also occurs in Australia, thus it is native to New Zealand, but not endemic.

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Pneumatopteris pennigera, pākau

Growth habit

Pākau is often a striking feature in damp, shaded, gullies. Although regarded as a ground fern, it often develops a slender trunk up to about 1 metre tall. This is why some people mistake it for a young tree fern. The stipes (stalks) of pākau’s fronds are 5-25 cm long, pale brown and scaly at the base. The fronds are 30-150 cm long x 10-40 cm wide, with dark green, thin segments (pinnae) which occur in 15-30 pairs, the longest 6-20 cm long x 1.5-3 cm wide, the shortest 1-6 cm long. The segments (pinnae), which taper to points, are sessile, i.e., they attach directly to the rachis, so they do not have stalks. The rachis is dark brown and grooved.


Rounded sori develop in two lines, one on each side of the midrib of each segment (pinna). When the sori are ripe, they open, and the spores are distributed by the wind to locations where they may develop into fernlets and later mature adults. See our description of the fern life-cycle in the December 2015 Tramper, on page 11.


Food: Māori used pākau fronds to flavour foods by wrapping the fronds around vegetables, weka or other birds, to be cooked in hangi/earth ovens. Some iwi ate the koru/young fronds raw.

Rongoā: The scraped roots have been used as poultices to ‘draw’ boils.

Some Wellington sites

Pākau is abundant along parts of Karori Sanctuary’s Fault-line Track, south of its junction with the Turbine Track. It also occurs in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, in native forest areas in Wellington’s Botanic Garden, and other native bush areas in the city. You may find that it makes an attractive subject for a photograph, on its own, or among other plants in a shaded gully.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 7, no 4, May 2015

May in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Podocarpus totara, tōtara, lowland tōtara

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Two mature totara receptacles with seeds on top

Tōtara is an evergreen, endemic NZ conifer member of the podocarp family (see February article). It grows in lowland, montane, and lower subalpine forests, up to c. 600 m above sea level, in the North, South and Rakiura/Stewart islands. There is a huge specimen in Homewood Cres, Karori. Slow-growing and hardy, tōtara may live for over 1000 years.

They may be 40 m or more tall, with bushy, spreading crowns, and trunks to 4 m diameter, with thick, furrowed, red-brown bark that peels off in long strips. Gnarled roots may spread out above ground. The mid-green adult leaves, 15-30 x 3-4 mm, radiating stiffly at c. 90° around the twigs, taper to sharply pointed tips. The juvenile leaves are c. 20 x 1-2 mm.


Tōtara are dioecious: the female trees have female cones and the male trees have male cones. In late spring, the male trees shed pollen from their cones, 10-15 x 3-4 mm, held singly, or clustered, on branchlets. In autumn, female tōtara produce seed cones on top of juicy bases called receptacles. The seeds are fertilised by wind-dispersed pollen. The receptacles, which change gradually from green to red, mature in autumn, are often mistaken for fruit, by people and birds. Birds eat the receptacles, together with the seeds perched on top. In rural areas you often see young tōtara growing along fence-lines, because birds have perched on the fences, voiding the seeds there.


Māori collected the mature receptacles in large quantities, relishing this sweet, juicy addition to their autumn diet. The timber is easily worked, and resists rot. Using toki / adzes and strategically-placed fires, Māori could hollow out from one giant tōtara a waka taua / war canoe capable of holding up to 100 paddlers. They also used tōtara for frames for whare, for many types of carvings and kōauau / flutes. The outer bark was used for torches and as splints for fractured limbs, and the inner bark for roofing, and containers for water and food. To make fire, they sometimes rubbed a pointed stick of tōtara on a slab of dead māhoe. Some TTC members saw this method on 21.10.2008, (see Tramper October 2008).

Pākeha felled vast tracts of tōtara to build houses, bridges, wharves, telephone poles and railway sleepers. Nowadays, it is used mainly for furniture and carving. The bark can be processed to produce green and brown dyes to colour wool for spinning. Although tōtara is a good firewood, trampers beware! In campfires it is known to emit many sparks. Tōtara make handsome, drought-resistant specimen trees when planted on open sites.

Several closely-related podocarps, also called tōtara, are snow tōtara / Podocarpus nivalis, needle-leaved tōtara / P. acutifolius, and Hall's tōtara / P. cunninghamii, also known as mountain tōtara or thin-barked tōtara. Look for them on your tramps - you will probably spot the resemblance


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 6, July 2015

July in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Prumnopitys ferruginea, miro, brown pine

Miro is an endemic member of the Prumnopitys genus. Its ancestors began to appear in the Lower Cretaceous era, over 100 million years ago. It grows in lowland forests in the North, South and Rakiura/Stewart islands, up to 1,000 m elevation, often in the same ecosystems as rimu, and on similar soils.

Its botanical name is derived from Prumno = plum; pitys = coniferous tree; ferruginea = rust-coloured. Both miro and mataī used to be in the Podocarpus genus, but taxonomic research showed that miro and mataī differ significantly from the other podocarps. As a result, the Prumnopitys genus was set up to accommodate these two species. However, recent DNA analysis indicates that miro is not so closely related to mataī after all. Eventually it will be moved into a new genus, yet to be set up and named.

Miro trees can grow for up to 800 years, with trunks up to 25 m tall and 1.25 m in diameter. The dark grey bark falls off in rounded flakes, making the trunk look hammer-marked, but less obviously so than in mataī. Good places to see fine miro are Upper Hutt's Harcourt Park, Waiorongomai and Mt Ruapehu. On your tramps you may have noticed that young miro, up to 6-8 m high, have a graceful, weeping form.

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Miro foliage and ripe ‘fruit’

Miro’s bright, light-green juvenile leaves are up to 30 x 2-3 mm, curving, tapering and narrowly pointed. The adult leaves are 15 x 2-3 mm, dark green above, paler green below, and arranged in two opposite rows in one plane, more or less at right angles to the branchlets. They are distinctly shorter and less sharply pointed than the juvenile leaves, with a prominent mid-vein, and margins that curve downwards.


Miro are dioecious: female trees have female 'cones'; male trees have male 'cones'. The slim, upright, male 'cones', 12-15 x 3-4 mm, borne on specialised branchlets, turn yellow as their pollen ripens and is carried away by wind and/or bees. Unlike mataī, miro's male cones do not occur every year, and are not usually numerous.

The female cones are also borne on specialised branchlets and bear ovules containing the female sexcells which after fertilisation by pollen, develop into seeds. Each seed is enclosed within a fleshy 'fruit', up to 20 mm diameter, like a small, green, unripe plum. (See pages 96-98, NZ's Native Trees. Dawson and Lucas. 2011). They take about a year to mature, eventually turning bright red-purple.


Māori ate the fruit raw. It is rather sweet, but with a slight tang and smell, similar to turpentine. Māori squeezed an aromatic substance from the fruit to make a perfume, and an insecticide. They extracted gum from the bark to place on wounds to stop bleeding, and to heal ulcers. They also used the bark to make water containers. Bushmen made an antiseptic from an infusion of the bark.

Wool can be dyed maroon, mushroom or brown with an extract from the bark, depending on the mordant used. Miro timber, hard, durable and straight-grained, was popular for house frames, weather-boards and floors. It is now used to make furniture and for carving and wood-turning.

Kererū and tūī love the ripe fruit. They often fly long distances to gorge themselves on it, later depositing the seeds in ecosystems nearby or further afield. The role of kererū and tūī in indigenous ecosystem succession is extremely important.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 87, no 5, June 2015

June in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Prumnopitys taxifolia, mataī, black pine

Mataī is an endemic NZ conifer member of the podocarp family, described in the February 2015 article. It grows in lowland forests up to c. 500 m above sea level in the North, South and Rakiura/Stewart islands. There are some fine mataī in Te Mārua Bush, Upper Hutt. Its botanical name was derived from Prumno = plum; pitys = coniferous tree; taxifolia = leaves like the yew tree, a member of the Taxus genus.

Fossil pollen grains of mataī have been dated from as far back as the Pliocene, seven million years ago. Mataī trees, which may live for up to 1000 years, grow to 25-33 m tall, with buttressed trunks up to 2.35 m diameter and broad crowns. Their distinctive grey-brown, bark falls off in thick, rounded flakes, making the trunks look ‘hammer-marked’. Peel off a flake to see the beautiful wine-red colour underneath.

Young mataī have a divaricating form. Their slender stems are wide-spreading, zigzagging and intertangled. This juvenile form may last for up to 60 years, until one stem dominates and develops into a tall tree, its typically erect branching a useful feature for trampers to distinguish it from many other large tree species.

The juvenile leaves are brownish-green, often dead-looking, 5-10 x 1-2 mm and sharply pointed. Some parts of the branchlets appear to lack leaves, but look closely and you will see they have tiny, brown, scale-like leaves hugging the branchlets. Adult leaves, 10-15 x 1-2 mm, are parallel-sided, straight, or very slightly curved, ending in two shoulders with a sharp point in the middle. They are dark green above, glaucous (bluish-white) below, and usually arranged at irregular intervals around the twigs.

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Mataī foliage and unripe ‘fruit’


You will by now have realised that 'cones' on podocarps are completely different from cones on pine trees. Mataī are usually dioecious, i.e., female trees have female 'cones', and male trees have male 'cones'.

The slender male 'cones', 12-15 x 3-4 mm, attached along specialised branchlets, turn yellow as their pollen grains ripen and are carried away by wind and/or bees.

The female 'cones' are also borne on specialised branchlets, and bear ovules containing the female sexcells, which, after fertilisation by pollen, develop into seeds. These become enclosed inside fleshy tissue, just as the seeds of grapes are, c. 5-9 mm in diameter.

This structure means they can be classified as 'fruit', (see page 101, NZ's Native Trees, Dawson and Lucas. 2011). These 'fruit' need up to eighteen months to ripen to purple-black, when they are relished by kererū and kākā. Mataī has mast seeding years of heavy seed production.


Māori ate the tiny fleshy 'fruit' from female mataī. They used the wood for carving, including musical instruments, e.g., kōauau, pūtōrino and pōrutu flutes.

Pākeha bushmen made an antiseptic from an infusion of the bark, and mataī beer from a fluid obtained by drilling into the heartwood.

Although loggers called all conifers, including our podocarps, ‘soft woods', mataī timber is very hard, dent-resistant, strong and durable, practical for flooring in schools, churches and dance floors. It was used to make furniture, bowls, tabletops, door steps, window sills and weather-boards, so is now recycled for these uses. The bark was used to tan leather and to dye wool a brown or mushroom colour. Freshly cut mataī wood has a distinctive scent


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 9, October 2012

October in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

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Pseudowintera axillaris

Pseudowintera axillaris and Pseudowintera colorata, both called horopito by Māori.

These two species are members of an endemic NZ genus, belonging to a family that appeared in the NZ fossil record over 65 million years ago, and found mainly in southeast Asia and South America. The family is the least specialised of all flowering plant families, having many ancient features of the earliest-evolved flowering plants.

The leaves of both species have smooth margins, and are coated on the back with a natural wax, which gives a pale, bluish appearance. Chew a leaf of either plant to sample the peppery taste, which deters browsing pests such as deer, goats or possums. You may have noted that one or other of these species often grows en masse in native forest from which the palatable species have been eaten out by pest animals.

Pseudowintera axillaris, Horopito

Pseudowintera axillaris, lowland horopito. This tree occurs in lowland and lower montane forests from Kaitaia to Buller. It can grow to 8 m tall, has dark bark, and rather leathery, dark-green leaves, 6-10 x 3-6 cm, that are glossy above and bluish-green below. They are mildly peppery to taste. The tiny, greenish-yellow flowers which appear be- tween September and December, produce small, red, or occasionally black, fruit.

Pseudowintera colorata, Horopito

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Pseudowintera colorata

Pseudowintera colorata, mountain horopito is a shrub or tree occurring in lowland to higher montane forest, from Te Paki in Northland, southwards through the North Island, and in the South and Stewart islands. It grows to 2 m, rarely to 8 m, and also has dark bark. Its leathery leaves range from 2-8 x 1-3 cm, are dull yellowish-green and red-blotched above, and blue-green below. Beware - they are very peppery to taste. Like its relative above, the flowers are greenish yellow. They appear between November and March, and produce small fruit ranging from dark red to black.

If you have tramped from Baked Beans Bend, Korokoro Stream, up to Belmont Trig, the last community you pass through before the trig is dominated by mountain horopito. Next time you are there, marvel at the unusual colours of the leaves in the canopy, near the gale-swept summit.

In the past, steeping the leaves of one of the horopito species, then applying the solution to the skin, was believed to cure some skin complaints. When you are far from a dentist, chewing a leaf of one of the horopito species is a distraction from toothache. A small sprig of a horopito may add zest to your billy of stew, and these days, some restaurants use mountain horopito as a peppery flavouring in spicy dishes.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, # 3, April 2017

April in the hills with Chris Horne

Pyrrosia eleagnifolia, Ota, Leather-leaf fern

Pyrrosia, derived from the Greek word for ‘flame-coloured’, refers to the fawn-coloured hairs on the undersides of the fronds of this endemic fern – eleagnifolia, also of Greek origin, means ‘with leaves like the olive tree’.

Distribution and habitat

Leather-leaf fern grows on the North and South islands, and on the Kermadec, Three Kings, Rakiura/Stewart and Rekohu/Chatham islands. This tough, adaptable fern can survive in very dry conditions. It is common throughout the country, ranging from exposed coastal areas to montane forests. Look for it growing on the ground, climbing over rocks, or as an epiphyte on native and introduced trees.

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Ota with fertile and sterile fronds


Ota’s rhizome, 1-2 mm in diameter, is long-creeping, branching and scaly.

Growth habit

Ota’s appearance differs markedly from that of many other ferns. The thick, fleshy, leathery, blunt-ended, tongue-like fronds are leaf-like, dark green, with scattered hairs on top, and dense, fawn-coloured hairs underneath. The thickness of the fronds and their hairy undersides make them drought-resistant. Their shape is extremely variable, and their margins are smooth. They are attached to the rhizome by winged stipes/stalks up to 2 cm long. The fronds have two forms:

  • fertile – elongated, 4-12 cm long x 1-2 cm wide;
  • sterile – shorter, egg-shaped, or almost round, up to 7 cm long x 2 cm wide.


The fertile fronds bear dome-like, round or oval sori on their undersides in two or more rows either side of the midrib and away from the margins. When the sori ripen and open, they release the yellow spores, which are spread by the wind to germinate on the ground, on rocks, or on tree trunks.


Other than providing an eye-catching subject for your photographs, there are no recorded uses for ota in either pre- or post-European times.

Where to look for ota

Keep an eye out for this common fern wherever you go tramping, up to c.1000 m above sea level. A fine specimen of it is growing on a large ngaio* on the berm outside 106 Upland Road, Kelburn. With its rhizome clinging to the bark, ota almost surrounds the trunk and climbs all four main limbs to a height of c. 5 m above the ground. This example is one of several you can see on Upland Road, some on native trees, others on exotic trees.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 6, July 2012

July in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Rhopalostylis sapida, Nīkau

Trampers may remember the lush groves of nīkau at the West Coast end of the Heaphy Track, a warm, moist site favoured by the species. Out of approximately 2,000 palm species world-wide, nīkau has the twin distinctions of being NZ's only palm species, and the southernmost palm species in the world. On the NZ mainland it is naturally occurring as far south as Whataroa in the west and Banks Peninsula in the east, but Pitt Island in the Chathams is its southernmost and easternmost outpost at 44° south. The only other member of the genus, Rhopalostylis baueri, is found in the Kermadec Islands.

Nīkau's green, approx. 25 cm diameter trunk, ringed with regular scars where the leaves have fallen off, does not taper, and almost never has branches. Because of its smoothness it does not offer a suitable surface for epiphytes to cling to. Reaching to 10 m in height after (estimated) 200 years growth, nīkau have been recorded at well over 20 m high. The stiff, finely-divided leaves are up to 3 m long, with leaflets up to 1 m long. The broad green leaf bases wrap around the top of the trunk, forming a distinctive, bulbous, tulip-shape, out of which, like an upside-down, inside-out, half-furled brolly, the crown of leaves arises in a cluster.

Nīkau have an unmistakable profile, so much so, that even the stately Flora of NZ Volume II refers to nīkau as having a “feather-duster” shape - you get the picture? Nīkau are slow-growing, long-lived trees, taking something like 50 years to develop any trunk at all, and at least 70 years to flower. In summer, like a pink octopus, the inflorescence of hundreds of male and female flowers bursts out of a large, enveloping bract, to lure insects and birds to its nectar. About a year later, the bright scarlet, fingernail-sized fruit, thickly strung on thin stalks like strings of beads, invite kererū and kākā to gorge themselves, thereby helping to ensure the distribution of this handsome endemic palm.

In earlier times the pliable, naturally water-shedding leaves were much used by Māori for thatch- ing whare, mat-making, and leggings for travelling through dense undergrowth, etc. The outer portion of the trunk was used to make storage containers and pots in which to hold water. Often admired by early European artists, nīkau appear in many well-known paintings. Long may they continue to adorn and enrich our landscapes.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 8, September 2011

September in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Ripogonum scandens, Kareao, Supplejack

There must be very few trampers who haven't cursed supplejack sometime on a tramp! In many a lowland forest, well below the bushline, you have probably tripped over its conspicuous, black, thumb-thick, entangled stems. Most of these stems reach right up into the canopy.

In the canopy their leaves, tiny greenish flowers and bright red fruit attractive to birds, hang on thin stems, up to 1 m long. Down on the forest floor, you sometimes see knee-high supplejack seedlings, with a few leaves on thin, dark stems. These grow into supple, succulent, brown stems with asparagus-like tips that move about in the wind. When they touch another plant, e.g. a sapling or tree, the cells on the side of the supplejack stem opposite those making contact with the potential support plant, are stimulated to elongate. This response enables the supplejack to begin winding around the support plant, climbing towards the sunlight.

People have found numerous uses for supplejack stems, - rope-ladders for climbing cliffs, hīnaki (eel-traps), lashings to bind tree-fern trunks for whare walls, food-storage baskets, cradles and walking-frames for young children, stretchers for injured trampers, and yes, even emergency pack frames! Medicinal uses for the sap include wound treatment. Elsdon Best, in 1905-07, reported that, “The water which exudes freely from a broken young shoot is applied to wounds”.

Supplejack, a New Zealand endemic, twining climber, is a member of a small genus with relatives in Australia and New Guinea. It occurs in the North, South, Stewart, and Chatham islands, usu- ally in valley bottoms and other moist sites — often with nikau — if the climate is not too cold. The ‘u’ in the name is pronounced as in ‘supple’.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 7, August 2012

August in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Rubus cissoides, Tātarāmoa, Bush lawyer

As you tramp through the bush, you can almost hear bush lawyer saying, “Hang on a minute mate,” as its multitude of backward-facing, curved prickles snag your clothing, or your bare skin, and perhaps remove your hat, or all these actions simultaneously. Colonists, noting the sheer tenacity of the plant, called it ‘bush lawyer’. Whether this was a compliment to the legal profession, or not, the name has literally clung to the plant.

New Zealand has five species of Rubus, the Latin word for ‘bramble’. They are endemic members of the rose family, a cosmopolitan family of about 1000 species. The name cissoides means like Cissus, an unrelated plant.

Rubus cissoides grows on the Three Kings, North, South and Rakiura / Stewart islands, in lowland and montane forests. It is a liane (vine) up to 15 m or more tall. The main stems are stout, up to 10 cm, or even 17 cm, in diameter, and have many branches, which are usually ‘unarmed’, i.e. they lack prickles. The leaves comprise five, or occasionally three, sharply-toothed leaflets. The branchlets, stalks, and the midribs on the underside of each leaflet are all armed with the prickles that stop trampers in their tracks.

Just as bush lawyer’s prickles grab your clothing or skin, so they enable the vine to cling to adjacent plants and to climb right into the forest canopy. If there is no plant for the young tātarāmoa to climb, it will sprawl across the forest floor until it finds one. In spring, in well-lit sites, bush lawyer produces sprays (panicles) of white, rose-like flowers with petals 5 – 8 mm long. Between November and April, the fruit, like a tiny raspberry 5 – 10 mm long, orange-red and fleshy, is an important source of food for birds and hungry trampers.

People with rheumatism used to sit over a vapour bath made by heating stones, then throwing water and tātarāmoa leaves over them. Infusions of tātarāmoa leaves have been used as a beverage and as a remedy for toothache, coughs and sore throats, stomach-ache and internal parasites.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 85, no 5, June 2013

A warm autumn in Wellington with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne

Tecomanthe speciosa

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Tecomanthe speciosa
Photo: Ewen Cameron

On a recent BBB tramp, walk or run you may have noticed that our extraordinarily-warm Autumn weather has encouraged profuse flowering of one of our rarest indigenous lianes, tecomanthe. Cascading over the hand-rail at the Otari Visitor Centre, climbing the Tree House lift tower in the Botanic Garden, clambering up the NZ School of Music at Victoria University, adorning the fence at Kelburn Medical Centre, and thriving on the roof of DOC's Conservation House, Manners St, this robust, Three Kings endemic liane has no Māori or common name, being known simply as tecomanthe.

In 1945 a party of botanists discovered a single plant of what we now call tecomanthe, on Manawa Tawhi, the largest of the Three Kings Islands off the north coast of Northland. Completely unknown to the world of science, it was being browsed almost to death by goats. Fortunately, six cuttings were taken and successfully propagated by horticulturists on the mainland, because the original plant produced no flowers from 1946 to the 1990s, and since then, it has not produced seed. Goat eradication on the island in 1946 rescued this handsome species from extinction, and luckily too, the cuttings produced viable plants, from which all subsequent tecomanthe plants have been grown.

A member of the largely tropical Bignoniaceae family, Tecomanthe speciosa has the DOC Conservation Threat Status of Nationally Critical. Its large, broadly-ovate, glossy, dark-green leaves comprise either one or two pairs of opposite leaflets, and a single terminal leaflet. The plump, green flower buds start off looking like shiny little cucumbers, in cluster of up to 50, growing straight out of the trunks. Then they turn bright white, resembling crowded bunches of small, fat, white bananas. The elegantly-beautiful, pendulous, tubular flowers, greenish-white to creamy-yellow, are each cupped in a green calyx, their petals up to c. 50 mm long. After fertilisation, the numerous seeds develop in woody pods which can often reach 200 mm long x c. 40 mm wide.

Like all small populations of plants and animals in what is called a genetic “bottle-neck”, (for instance, the Chatham Island black robin), Tecomanthe speciosa, a clone, lacks the genetic variability to deal effectively with environmental change. This means that it could more easily be wiped out by e.g. a pathogen, or a climatic change which does not suit its requirements. So if Wellington’s climate continues to warm, maybe we should all encourage lots of plantings of tecomanthe, in order to increase its chances of survival.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 84, # 8, September 2012

September in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Great to eat but hard to pronounce – take it syllable by syllable, just as you would take the leaves off, one by one, to eat raw in salads or barely cooked.

Tetragonia tetragonioides, Kōkihi, NZ native spinach

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Tetragonia tetragonioides, Kōkihi
Jeremy Rolfe

We are writing about two species of native spinach here, both of them edible, but this one, (Tet tet for short), although a very uncommon, threatened plant in the wild, is readily available in plant shops, and is often grown as a vegetable.

As well as being a native NZ plant, it is also native to Australia, Asia and parts of the Pacific. It's a fast-growing scrambler, with sappy stems as thick as your little finger. Its succulent, shovel-shaped dark green leaves about 10 cm by 6 cm make very attractive ground cover all year round - see image. Like non-native spinach, it likes and deserves good soil. Its tiny, bright-yellow flowers are followed by small, woody, horned capsules containing the seeds. These usually self-sow, so you can be sure of a constant supply of this useful stand-by vegetable, handy for any purposes for which you might use non-native spinach – soups, quiches, omelettes, stirfry, salads, etc. If/when the plants get straggly, compost them and they will break down rapidly, while their seedlings are growing to a useable size in the garden. Packets of NZ native spinach seeds and punnets of 6 young plants are available in the garden department of at least one Wellington city supermarket, and at garden centres, for about $3.50, this month.

High in vitamin C, in 1769 Tet tet was used extensively and successfully by both Cook and de Surville, who realised its antiscorbutic value. Their crews, desperately weak from scurvy after months at sea, swiftly recovered when plentiful helpings of these greens were added to their daily diet. It is not recorded whether the officers stood over the sailors, saying, “Now you make sure you eat all your greens, sailor .....”

Tetragonia implexicoma

Trampers are sure to have noticed this other NZ spinach species - Tet imp for short - on coastal tramps, so it is not pictured here. Commonly occurring in coastal ecosystems, it is not a threatened plant. Its thin, wiry, reddish stems scramble over coastal shrubs such as pōhuehue. The leaves are smaller and paler green than Tet tet, broadly diamond-shaped, and fleshy. They usually have a pleasantly salty taste - green chips anyone? Little yellow flowers are followed by small, bright red, succulent fruit, a contrast to Tet tet's woody capsules.


This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 83, # 7, August 2011

August in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe

Urtica ferox Ongaonga Tree nettle

Our well-known NZ stinging nettle, ongaonga, Urtica ferox, is one of over 1000 species in the worldwide nettle family, Urticaceae. It is one of nine indigenous NZ nettle species. Not all nettle species sting - many have medicinal properties; some can be eaten, providing a good source of Vitamin C, and NZ and non-NZ nettle species are hosts for red admiral butterflies.

But before we go any further - yes, the substance injected at your slightest touch, by ongaonga's “hypodermics”, (technically, stinging hairs), is a potent, nerve toxin. It causes the victim's body to react instantly with an extreme histamine response. Too much of it has proved fatal to humans and some animals, dogs and horses in particular.

Most trampers are likely to have experienced the acute pins-and-needles tingling, alternating with numbness, which can last intermittently for 2 – 3 days, after an encounter with ongaonga. You can use antihistamine ointment from your first aid kit to reduce these symptoms, but if respiratory or muscular coordination symptoms occur, seek medical help. Infants and young children need to be kept well away from ongaonga.

Make a point of teaching children, and visitors to NZ, to recognise this twiggy shrub which grows from 1 to 3 m high, often found in sunny places at bush margins. Its pale green, serrated leaves are usually c.12 cm long by 3-5 cm wide, and the minute flowers are crowded on fine, dangling twigs. Leaves and stems are armed with white, stinging hairs, each hair fed by a tiny bladder of toxin.

Keep an eye out for Urtica incisa, another NZ stinging nettle species common around Wellington, looking just like a small version of Urtica ferox.

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