October in the hills with Chris Horne
Myrsine australis, māpou, māpau, matipou, red matipo
This endemic tree is one of the eleven New Zealand members of the widespread genus Myrsine. Some members of the genus are trees, others are shrubs.
Origin of the names
Myrsine comes from the Greek word for ‘myrtle bush’; australis comes from the Latin word for ‘southern’. In Te Reo the plant has several names in addition to those in the heading, The Ngapuhi iwi call it tīpau, and Chatham Islanders call it mataira.
Distribution and habitat
Look for māpou in lowland to montane forests, up to about 900 m elevation, especially near bush edges, on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, Te Wai Pounamu/South Island, and Rakiura/Stewart Island. It can colonise bare ground, and thrive in the under-storey of dense forest. Introduced pest animals avoid browsing māpou.
Māpou is a shrub or tree up to about 8 m tall, with a trunk up to 20 cm diameter. The bark on the trunk is smooth and dark with corky spots. The bark on the younger branches and on branchlets is red* – hence the name ‘red matipo’. The leaves grow on rather stout stalks/petioles about 5 mm long. The leaves are yellow-green, about 3-6 cm long x 1.5-2.5 cm wide, leathery, with smooth edges. The leaf margins are usually strongly wavy*, and the leaf tips sometimes have a small notch. You will see red oil glands on young leaves. * Two useful features for identification.
Māpou’s tiny, yellowish flowers develop on woody twigs. Plants either bear female flowers or male flowers, not both. The berries, 2-3 mm in diameter, are black when mature. The flowering season is from January to April. The berries ripen from October to February. Often the flowers and fruit do not develop until many, or most, leaves have fallen. In May this year in Karori Sanctuary/Zealandia, and the contiguous Long Gully Bush Reserve, māpou trees shed many leaves. Tauhou/waxeye, tūī, pōpokotea/whitehead, korimako/bellbird, etc., eat the fruit, and spread the seeds and pollen. What plant can be confused with māpou? Learn to distinguish māpou from kōhūhū/Pittosporum tenuifolium whose leaves do not have red spots, whose leaf stalks are dark or black, and whose flowers are dark red, or nearly black.
Māori used branches of māpou for ceremonial purposes such as performing karakia or incantations during baptisms and funerals. To treat toothache they boiled māpou leaves then held the liquid in the mouth. Māori used māpou wood for the keels of waka and handles of adzes. They placed a pole of māpou in the ground at the east end of kumara plantings to represent Rongo, the guardian of planted foods. Māpou wood is not durable for use as fence posts but the strong, red-veined wood has been used to form veneers for cabinets and planks to make beams, joists, rafters and chairs, and handles for chisels, hammers and saws. Māpou is popular as a hedge plant because it can be trimmed, and is resistant to gales.
Where to find māpou around Wellington
Māpou is common in Wellington city’s reserves and in the Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi ranges