June in the hills with Michele Dickson and Chris Horne
Beilschmiedia, Tawa, Tawa
Tawa is one of the two endemic NZ species in the genus Beilschmiedia, which belongs to the mostly tropical family Lauraceae (Laurel).
Origin of the botanical name
The Beilschmiedia genus is named after Karl Traugott Beilschmied (1793-1848), a Polish plant geographer; tawa is the Te Reo name of the tree and its purple fruits.
Distribution and habitat
Tawa is common on Te Ika a Māui/North Island and on Te Waipounamu/South Island in Nelson and Marlborough. Look for tawa in lowland to lower montane forest where it is often a dominant canopy tree. It also often occurs in close association with podocarps where it may be the dominant subcanopy tree.
Tawa is an evergreen tree up to 35 m tall. The single trunk is straight, smooth and up to 1.2 m in diameter, with dark bark. Its leaves, 5-10 cm x 1-2 cm, are willow-like, narrow, tapering at both ends, thin and smooth-edged. Their colour is pale green or green to yellow-green, and slightly paler, even bluish, underneath.
The small, rather insignificant pale green flowers have both male and female parts. They appear in spring on slender, smooth panicles up to 8 cm long growing straight out from the axils of leaves. Small native thrips pollinate the tiny flowers. The fruit, which ripen from summer to autumn, are a striking purple-black, date-like drupe, 2-3 cm long when ripe. There is one large hard seed surrounded by the fleshy covering in each fruit. These seeds or kernels are distributed by large birds such as kererū, which are large enough to ingest the fruits and excrete the seeds intact.
Māori used tawa kernels as food, after extensive steaming, soaking, storing and more steaming then pounding. This removed the slight flavour of turpentine from the pulp. They used the timber to make battens for the walls and roofs of whare, and for bird spears. Tawa wood is hard and resilient, so has been used for floor-boarding and feature panelling. The flesh of a ripe berry has a resinous, sweetish flavour. Decoctions of tawa bark have been used for coughs, colds and stomach ache.
Where to find Beilschmiedia tawa?
You can see tawa in tall forest, in for example, Khandallah Park, Huntleigh Park, Ōtari-Wiltonís Bush, Hayward Scenic Reserve, Kaitoke Regional Park, Remutaka and Tararua ranges.