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:
|Feature||Hard Beech||Red Beech|
|leaves||25-35 mm x 20 mm||20-40 mm x 15-25 mm|
|leaf tip outline||not pointed||pointed|
|side veins||5 or more||3, 4 or 5|
|teeth||8-12 each side, blunt||6-8 each side, pointed, curved towards leaf tip|
|trunk diameter||up to 2 m or more||up to 2 m or more|
|bark on large trees||vertically grooved||shaggy vertical strips peeling upwards|
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.