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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.
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.
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.