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
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
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
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
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