October in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Pseudowintera axillaris and Pseudowintera colorata, both called horopito by Māori.
These two species are members of an endemic NZ genus, belonging to a family that appeared in the NZ fossil record over 65 million years ago, and found mainly in southeast Asia and South America. The family is the least specialised of all flowering plant families, having many ancient features of the earliest-evolved flowering plants.
The leaves of both species have smooth margins, and are coated on the back with a natural wax, which gives a pale, bluish appearance. Chew a leaf of either plant to sample the peppery taste, which deters browsing pests such as deer, goats or possums. You may have noted that one or other of these species often grows en masse in native forest from which the palatable species have been eaten out by pest animals.
Pseudowintera axillaris, Horopito
Pseudowintera axillaris, lowland horopito. This tree occurs in lowland and lower montane forests from Kaitaia to Buller. It can grow to 8 m tall, has dark bark, and rather leathery, dark-green leaves, 6-10 x 3-6 cm, that are glossy above and bluish-green below. They are mildly peppery to taste. The tiny, greenish-yellow flowers which appear be- tween September and December, produce small, red, or occasionally black, fruit.
Pseudowintera colorata, Horopito
Pseudowintera colorata, mountain horopito is a shrub or tree occurring in lowland to higher montane forest, from Te Paki in Northland, southwards through the North Island, and in the South and Stewart islands. It grows to 2 m, rarely to 8 m, and also has dark bark. Its leathery leaves range from 2-8 x 1-3 cm, are dull yellowish-green and red-blotched above, and blue-green below. Beware - they are very peppery to taste. Like its relative above, the flowers are greenish yellow. They appear between November and March, and produce small fruit ranging from dark red to black.
If you have tramped from Baked Beans Bend, Korokoro Stream, up to Belmont Trig, the last community you pass through before the trig is dominated by mountain horopito. Next time you are there, marvel at the unusual colours of the leaves in the canopy, near the gale-swept summit.
In the past, steeping the leaves of one of the horopito species, then applying the solution to the skin, was believed to cure some skin complaints. When you are far from a dentist, chewing a leaf of one of the horopito species is a distraction from toothache. A small sprig of a horopito may add zest to your billy of stew, and these days, some restaurants use mountain horopito as a peppery flavouring in spicy dishes.