June in the hills with Barbara Mitcalfe and Chris Horne
Prumnopitys taxifolia, mataī, black pine
Mataī is an endemic NZ conifer member of the podocarp family, described in the February 2015 article. It grows in lowland forests up to c. 500 m above sea level in the North, South and Rakiura/Stewart islands. There are some fine mataī in Te Mārua Bush, Upper Hutt. Its botanical name was derived from Prumno = plum; pitys = coniferous tree; taxifolia = leaves like the yew tree, a member of the Taxus genus.
Fossil pollen grains of mataī have been dated from as far back as the Pliocene, seven million years ago. Mataī trees, which may live for up to 1000 years, grow to 25-33 m tall, with buttressed trunks up to 2.35 m diameter and broad crowns. Their distinctive grey-brown, bark falls off in thick, rounded flakes, making the trunks look ‘hammer-marked’. Peel off a flake to see the beautiful wine-red colour underneath.
Young mataī have a divaricating form. Their slender stems are wide-spreading, zigzagging and intertangled. This juvenile form may last for up to 60 years, until one stem dominates and develops into a tall tree, its typically erect branching a useful feature for trampers to distinguish it from many other large tree species.
The juvenile leaves are brownish-green, often dead-looking, 5-10 x 1-2 mm and sharply pointed. Some parts of the branchlets appear to lack leaves, but look closely and you will see they have tiny, brown, scale-like leaves hugging the branchlets. Adult leaves, 10-15 x 1-2 mm, are parallel-sided, straight, or very slightly curved, ending in two shoulders with a sharp point in the middle. They are dark green above, glaucous (bluish-white) below, and usually arranged at irregular intervals around the twigs.
You will by now have realised that 'cones' on podocarps are completely different from cones on pine trees. Mataī are usually dioecious, i.e., female trees have female 'cones', and male trees have male 'cones'.
The slender male 'cones', 12-15 x 3-4 mm, attached along specialised branchlets, turn yellow as their pollen grains ripen and are carried away by wind and/or bees.
The female 'cones' are also borne on specialised branchlets, and bear ovules containing the female sexcells, which, after fertilisation by pollen, develop into seeds. These become enclosed inside fleshy tissue, just as the seeds of grapes are, c. 5-9 mm in diameter.
This structure means they can be classified as 'fruit', (see page 101, NZ's Native Trees, Dawson and Lucas. 2011). These 'fruit' need up to eighteen months to ripen to purple-black, when they are relished by kererū and kākā. Mataī has mast seeding years of heavy seed production.
Māori ate the tiny fleshy 'fruit' from female mataī. They used the wood for carving, including musical instruments, e.g., kōauau, pūtōrino and pōrutu flutes.
Pākeha bushmen made an antiseptic from an infusion of the bark, and mataī beer from a fluid obtained by drilling into the heartwood.
Although loggers called all conifers, including our podocarps, ‘soft woods', mataī timber is very hard, dent-resistant, strong and durable, practical for flooring in schools, churches and dance floors. It was used to make furniture, bowls, tabletops, door steps, window sills and weather-boards, so is now recycled for these uses. The bark was used to tan leather and to dye wool a brown or mushroom colour. Freshly cut mataī wood has a distinctive scent