July in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Laurelia novae-zelandiae, pukatea, pukatea
Pukatea is a member of the Atherospermataceae family. There are only two species of Laurelia in this family, our pukatea, and L. sempervirens which occurs in Chile in a similar type of habitat.
Origin of the botanical name
Laurelia means ‘like the bay tree’; ‘novae-zelandiae’ means ‘of New Zealand’ . Pukatea is the Te Reo and common name.
Distribution and habitat
Pukatea is endemic to Aotearoa/New Zealand. It grows at lower elevations on Te Ika a Maui/North Island, and on Te Waipounamu/South Island as far south as northern Marlborough in the east and Fiordland in the west. Look for it in lowland semiswamp and gully forests.
Pukatea is a tree up to 35 m tall. The trunk is up to 2 m diameter with roughly triangular plankbuttresses which spread from the base. The buttresses, which provide stability on the often shallow, wet soils on gully floors, may extend into roots above the forest floor with shield-like pneumatophores / breathing roots up to 1 m tall. These absorb air for the roots in water-logged soil. The bark is pale, smooth and spongy with corky cells which absorb air for the living tissues in the trunk. The small branchlets, green or redbrown, are rectangular in cross-section. Roll one between your fingers to check. Clustered near the ends of the branches, the leaves, in opposite pairs, are glossy and dark green on top and paler underneath. They are 4-8 cm long x 2.5-5 cm wide, with blunt, evenly-spaced serrations.
Pukatea has small, greenish female and male flowers. The flowers, up to 6 mm across, grow in groups up to 3 cm long between the branchlets and the leaf stalks. The flowers appear from October to December. The small, dry, flask-shaped, one-seeded fruit appear from October to January. About 5 mm long, they have ‘parachutes’ of hairs to aid dispersal by the wind.
Māori carved the elaborate prows of waka from pukatea’s plank buttresses. Pukatea trunks become hollow in old age, so Māori sometimes hid their dead in the hollows. They scraped the inner bark to make a decoction to treat running sores and toothache. The strong, light wood has been used for weatherboards, roofing, boat-building and cabinet-making.
Where might you find pukatea?
You can see pukatea in Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush, as a TTC native-plant group did on 28 April, in Karori Sanctuary and East Harbour and Kaitoke regional parks. Look for it in scattered sites in eastern Wairarapa, such as Carter Scenic Reserve, east of Carterton.