Matai precious survivors

One of several matai growing beside the Northern Motorway near the Waitati turn-off. The leaves...
One of several matai growing beside the Northern Motorway near the Waitati turn-off. The leaves have a rather subdued, watery-green hue compared to rimu, totara and miro, a close relative of matai. Photos: Supplied
Lowland survivors might finally be getting a break, writes Mark Clark.

Mark Clark
Mark Clark
Next time you head north from Dunedin on the motorway, take another look at the group of tall native trees to the right of the road just before you reach Waitati. Thanks to the landowners, about a dozen matai, kahikatea and totara are now protected for future generations as part of the Waitete Bush Regeneration Project (Waitete is the original name of Waitati).

The Otago Regional Council and members of the local community are helping to restore 2.5ha of land around the trees to the kind of podocarp/broadleaf forest that used to cover the area.

Most of the trees in this covenanted land are mature matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia) or black pine, one of the most widespread species of New Zealand’s 20 native conifers. Before people cleared much of the lowland forest for hunting and farming, matai thrived throughout the North and South Islands, as well as on Rakiura/Stewart Island. There’s good evidence that they even used to grow right up the valley of the Clutha River/Mata-Au into Central Otago. A few survivors can still be seen by Lake Wanaka (e.g., Diamond Lake near Wanaka township) and Lake Wakatipu.

The old ‘‘broken’’ matai by a car park near the Taieri Rd entrance to Wakari Hospital. The leafy...
The old ‘‘broken’’ matai by a car park near the Taieri Rd entrance to Wakari Hospital. The leafy crown seems to be regrowing well following a breakage of the upper trunk.

A handsome matai growing beside Waitati Valley Road near Waitati, close to the junction of that...
A handsome matai growing beside Waitati Valley Road near Waitati, close to the junction of that road and the Northern Motorway.

Matai would still have been common in the dense bush that clothed the hills and mountains of coastal Otago when European settlers first arrived. However, new settlements need new buildings, and new buildings need lots of wood. Matai wood was just the job for flooring, windowsills and weatherboards, among other things. As a result, there are precious few old matai left in Dunedin’s urban area for locals to admire.

Not far from the Waitete Bush covenant, there’s a particularly tall, handsome, but rather lonely matai growing in a paddock beside the Waitati Valley Road. The unsealed route from Leith Saddle down Waitati Valley Road takes you past this tree and back on to the Northern Motorway near Waitati. If you’ve never tried this detour, it’s worth a few extra minutes of leisurely travelling to immerse yourself in a charming rural landscape that conjures up memories of less frantic times.

One of the easiest local matai to get to is a grand old veteran growing beside a car park near the Taieri Rd entrance of Wakari Hospital. Its leafy crown seems to be regrowing well following a breakage of the upper trunk.

Another matai beside the Northern Motorway near Waitati. If this tree can thicken and maintain...
Another matai beside the Northern Motorway near Waitati. If this tree can thicken and maintain its leafy crown, its attractive symmetry will make it the best-looking member of the group.
Glenfalloch Gardens on Otago Peninsula boasts a mature matai that is estimated to be more than 1000 years old. After surviving everything that nature and humans have thrown at the peninsula since 1000CE or so, the tree was damaged by a storm in 2011. I’m happy to report that it continues to soldier on into the new millennium.

What do you get when you let a matai grow for a few hundred years? As the photo shows, a sinuous grey column topped by lacy clouds of pale green leaves, or, from a distance, something with woody bits like a gum tree and leafy bits like a pine tree. Up close of course, the leaves are more like a yew (hence the taxifolia — leaves like a yew — in Prumnopitys taxifolia), but paler, smaller and sparser. The fleshy, purple-black fruits are loved by kereru, and Dunedin is fortunate to have healthy numbers of kereru to help us spread these impressive podocarps.

In Hebrew, matai is a gift from God. In Tahitian it means skilful and in Fijian it means expert — very similar. A Samoan matai is a kind of chief. The Polynesians who first settled New Zealand may have had an honour like that in mind when they used the name for one of the most noble trees of the forest.

 

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