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.
|Feature||Mountain Beech||Black Beech|
|leaves||10-15 mm x 7-10 mm||10-15 mm x 5-10 mm|
|shape||wider 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
|texture||leathery||firm; surface puckered between veins|
|hairs||none on top; dense greyishwhite hairs underneath||none on top; white hairs underneath when young|
|trunk||diameter up to 1 m||up to 1.2 m|
|bark||pale on young trees;|
dark brown and fairly smooth on older trees
|pale on young trees;|
black and vertically furrowed on older trees
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.