KAHIKATEA – Dacrycarpus dacrydioides
Family – Podocarpaceae
The tallest of New Zealand’s native trees, it grows throughout the country as well as in and near the kauri forests of Tai Tokerau. Sometimes reaching above 65 metres in height, it is never as large as kauri, but is often taller. Found mostly below 600 metres, and often in wet areas near swamps and rivers, it is notable for its buttressed roots and is frequently found in dense groves, especially when most of the trees are younger, as many die as they grow because the trees demand high light levels to survive.
Like kauri, Kahikatea is said to be a child of Tāne and Hine wao riki, but Ngati Porou say that the first Kahikatea grew from the feathers of a giant, magical bird, Tawhaitari, that returned their tupuna, Porangahua to Aotearoa from Hawaiiki. Maori medicine (Rongoa Maori) used kahikatea tea as a remedy for urinary tract infections, and the long, straight trunks were often utilised for waka, although the timber is not especially resistant to salt water.
Young trees have elegantly conical, although the change into shaggy topped giants on maturity. The orange berries topped with a black seed, known to Maori as koroi, were valued on two levels; first as an edible fruit in its own right, with the sweet, mildly flavoured fleshy orange parts collected during March and April; birds also love kahikatea berries, and during the peak fruit season kahikatea trees were staked out by hunters, especially for the highly prized kukupa (native pigeon).
Trees are either male or female, and they grow close together for more efficient fertilisation. Male cones are cylindrical and small (around 1cm), producing pollen that falls on immature seeds on the tips of twigs on female trees. Pollen falls in spring, and the fertilised seeds ripen on top of the orange, fleshy receptacles the following autumn, where they attract birds that will distribute them across the forest
The steely grey bark of mature trees flakes easily in large ovals, and in the forest the trunks often have a silvery sheen to them. Foliage is greyish green, with leaves pointed and small, no more than 2 mm long.
Kahikatea timber has a yellow hue, and is effectively tasteless making it popular for butchers’ blocks in the days of real butchers. It was also widely used for packaging butter for export, and the famous butter boxes of the first half of the twentieth century saw the demise of many kahikatea around the country.