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Podocarpus totara

FEWER THAN ONE THOUSAND YEARS AGO, according to radio-carbon dating by scientists, a great part of South Canterbury was covered with immense totara forests. The evidence is there today, lying among tussock and snowgrass on hillside and in valley between the Rangitata and Waitaki Rivers.
Whether those forests were destroyed by fires lit by the first native inhabitants or by changes of climate in the process of time is not certain.
Maori legends, most of them shadowy and probably distorted, indicate that the forests of South Canterbury, as in the rest of the province and in Otago, were destroyed by fire in the time of the Rapuwai people, a legendary race even more remote than the Waitaha.
Canon James Stack makes mention of these people in information he collected from native chiefs between 1859 and 1863, but there is nothing factual by which actual dates may be established.
When the first white settlers reached South Canterbury they found remnants of once larger forests growing in isolated areas, and fallen trees in the process of deterioration. Even in the Mackenzie Country, which has no Maori legends associated with the forests, the first runholders found quantities of ancient totara logs when they began burning their runs in 1856-57. Evidence of these former forests is still available from men who have seen the remains of huge trees, and it is recorded in many station diaries how fencing posts were obtained from the fallen logs, the timber of which was quite firm 100 years ago.
John Hayman, of Timaru, remembers that when his father, Walter Hayman, bought 320 acres of the Waimate run at the mouth of the Waihao River, he found that large logs had been preserved in the swampy ground. These were revealed when the land was drained, and at low tide, when the river waters receded, huge logs of former forest trees could be seen jutting from the banks, ten feet under water.
Mrs Fanny Cohen, of Wellington, whose father owned Elephant Hill run in 1901, remembers the huge totara logs found lying all over the country among the tussocks, some of them partly buried in the earth. They were snigged out for firewood and broke into large biscuit-coloured chips which burned beautifully.
Charles Mathias, whose property is part of the original Ashwick run near Fairlie, still finds the remains of large totara logs on the sunny slopes of his hill country up to a height of 4,000 feet, and isolated totaras grow among the five-finger and broadleaf in the gullies. In 1954 he gathered sacks of firewood from an ancient tree which was shattered by lightning. During a flood in 1945, when a stream opposite the Mathias homestead scoured its bed to a depth of twelve feet, large matai logs, in an excellent state of preservation, were revealed, yet there is no sign of matai growing in the vicinity today, nor of any other forest.
These extensive forests of former times must have covered the hill country along the northern bank of the Waitaki River and possibly the Kirkliston Range, and extended into or near the Mackenzie basin.
Sidney M. Taylor, of Oamaru, who worked on the Te Akatarawa run as a boy in the early 1880's, recalls that great numbers of totara logs were there, indicating the site of an extensive forest. One of particular magnitude must have flourished in Emanuel's Valley, an extensive basin near the western boundary of the run where the remains of tree trunks thirty to forty feet long showed signs of having been burnt.
In May 1892, when T. N. Brodrick surveyed property boundaries in and around the Hakataramea Valley, he found traces of large totara logs lying about the slopes of the Kirkliston Range and also on and about Meyer's Pass, country which today is dry and close-cropped, with scarcely a tree except in plantations of exotics.
The slopes of the Hunters Hills, the Brothers Range, Mount Misery, the Albury Range and the Two Thumb Range all bear evidence of former forest by the remains of the logs found there, most of them disintegrated or almost so. Today clumps of poor-quality bush growing in the valleys are all that remain of the green mantle of forest.
All this evidence tends to suggest that at some time in its history the country enjoyed a milder climate and a greater rainfall, providing conditions in which forests thrived, but by the time the first Europeans reached South Canterbury, plodding on foot through its tangled vegetation to explore the country, they found few existing forests. These were certainly greater in extent than any remaining today, but woefully reduced from the areas of former times.
(South Canterbury- A record of settlement,1958)

The Maori prized this forest tree more highly than any other because of the remarkable qualities of its timber. The heartwood is very durable and the Maori found the wood could be readily split and shaped with primitive stone tools for canoes, building, and carving. The same properties made it a valuable timber to the first European settlers for house and wharf piles, and for those parts of buildings requiring durable members.

The tree is a conifer with a wide distribution in North, South, and Stewart Islands. It occurs more sparsely than rimu, the main large forest tree, but is plentiful on shingly river flats. It is closely related to another species P. hallii, or Hall's totara, which is a somewhat smaller species growing at higher altitudes. The prostrate or shrubby species of Podocarpus, P. acutifolius and P. nivalis – the former sometimes a small tree – are related to the extent that groups of hybrids occur.

Totara is a tree reaching 120 ft high and has a diameter of up to 6 or 7 ft through. Along with other conifers, in particular rimu, it usually forms the scattered, emergent storey stretching above the dense canopy of broadleaf trees. The bark is thick and stringy – that of P. hallii is thin and papery – and the leaves, linear and sharp pointed, are less than an inch long and very dark green-brownish in colour. The flowers are dioecious, the female being on short peduncles which turn red and often become swollen. The nuts are embedded in these.

The four New Zealand species are known by their Mâori name of tôtara.


Adult trees are covered in a thick bark that peels off in strips. The leaves are needle-like, about 2.5 centimetres long and 3–4 millimetres wide. Young tôtara are unpalatable to grazing stock and will regenerate on pasture where tôtara have previously grown. In some farming districts it is common to see groves of secondary tôtara in grass paddocks.


Tôtara readily forms hybrids with the other three species of Podocarpus. It can be difficult to identify individual specimens at sites where tôtara and Hall's tôtara meet and hybridise. Golden tôtara, a popular cultivated plant, originates from a natural hybrid of tôtara and needle-leaved tôtara. All golden tôtara plants are male and are propagated from cuttings.

Totara 460 rings (years) Auckland Museum
Totara 460 rings (years) Auckland Museum

Tôtara was one of the most useful timber trees in the New Zealand forest. Mâori favoured it, as its reddish-brown timber is light, and long canoes could easily be hollowed out from its tall trunks. They had other uses too: houses, carvings, musical instruments and toys, and the bark was used for roofing, torches, containers, and splints for broken limbs.

Tôtara timber was also used extensively by European settlers. Its durability meant that it was the preferred timber for railway sleepers, wharf and house piles, telegraph poles and fence posts.

'TOTARA', from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Sep-2007 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/1966/T/Totara/en

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South Canterbury,
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