May in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Podocarpus totara, tōtara, lowland tōtara
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