The Giant of New Zealand



Kauri – Agathis australis

Family Araucariaceae

Ancient tree, with a whakapapa that predates the existence of New Zealand. It is one of the world’s largest trees, certainly the biggest in New Zealand with the largest recorded specimen, Kairaru which grew in the Waipoua area at Tutamoe, was more than twice the size of the largest living kauri, Tāne Mahuta, with a trunk 20.1 metres in girth and 30.5 metres to the crown. Measured by wood content Kairaru would have been the largest tree on Earth, with around 1,500 cubic metres of timber in its trunk alone.

According to some, kauri was the child of Tāne and Hine wao riki at the very beginning of the forest. Once, kauri was a close friend of Paroa, the sperm whale, before Parāoa returned to the sea to live over 50 million-years-ago. The story is that Parāoa gave its skin to kauri to for his protection, hence the similarity between kauri bark and sperm whale skin, and both produce hard excretions of considerable value to humans, which are found washed up on the long, windswept beaches of western Tai Tokerau : kauri gum and ambergris.

At the time of their split, Paraoa was a mere stripling, while kauri was already 200 million-years-old.

Kauri trees live long, with some of the giants of Waipoua estimated to be at least 3,000 years-old. They have a long juvenile period of as much as 60 years, during which they are conical, with branches almost from the ground to their pointed tops. These branches are dropped in a process of self pruning, and the remaining knots eliminated by the tree to produce a clean straight bole from ground to crown, where massive branches make a mushroom -like head. In this crown an entirely isolated micro ecosystem develops, one which supports a varied biodiversity of plants, insects, birds and often the only native mammal of the forest, the bat.

Kauri is monoecious, with both female cones that produce pollen and male cones from which the pollen fertilised seeds develop. Female cones are smaller and elongated, while the male cones are spherical. The winged seeds are carried by wind out across the forest to new sites where the seedlings may grow without competition from fiercely territorial parent trees that moderate the soils around them to be especially unsympathetic to competition.

Agathis once grew across the planet, but is now restricted to areas of the south and west Pacific. Kauri itself is the oldest member of the family, surviving only in northern New Zealand, between Te Paki in the North and a line between Kawhia in Western Waikato and Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty. Kauri forest was once the dominant forest type throughout this area. Although defined as a lowland species, it grows to the snow line on the Coromandel, and to the highest points throughout the region as well as swamp and coastal areas with equal vigour.

While the size of kauri trees made it an uncommon timber for Maori to use with their limited milling technology, except in rare cases for constructions of enormous mana, such as waka taua (war canoes), the timber is so malleable, light, strong and flexible the arrival of Pakeha technologies made kauri timber the largest economic driver in settler New Zealand. Kauri forest was not so much milled, as it was obliterated, and with its demise in the 1950s came the collapse of the Northland and Coromandel economies.

Kauri timber was used in building construction, shipping, carts and wheels, furniture, beer fermenting vats and any number of miscellaneous items now produced from plastic. It was used throughout New Zealand and was exported in substantial quantities to Australia and California. Kauri gum, which Maori burned to create soot to colour their moko (tatoo), became an important trade item when it was identified late in the 19th century as ideal for high quality varnish manufacture. For a number of years gum was a more valuable export than gold.