Mature rewarewa (Knightia excelsa), also called New Zealand honeysuckle, is recognisable from its tall columnar form, similar to a poplar. It is one of New Zealand’s taller trees, growing to over 35 metres in height. Rewarewa is in the Protea family – a large group of plants, many of them found in South Africa and Australia.
Rewarewa grows in lowland forest throughout the North Island, and in the Marlborough Sounds at the South Island’s north-eastern tip. It is common in regenerating forest.
Juvenile leaves grow to 30 centimetres long and are thin and coarsely toothed. Adult leaves are thick, bluntly toothed and only half as long. In spring, rewarewa has clusters of dark reddish-brown bottle-brush flowers. When open, the petals coil into tight spirals, exposing long styles (the female part of the flower). The flowers are pollinated by tūī and bellbirds, which drink the nectar. The fruits are dry, brown capsules that split open to release small winged seeds.
Rewarewa wood has prominent rays. When cut on the radius it produces attractive, silvery red-brown timber, used in inlay and decorative work. In the past it was used to make bush tramways, brake blocks and swingletrees (crossbars between a horse and vehicle).
Pukatea (Laurelia novae-zealandiae) is a tall tree, up to 35 metres in height, that grows in swampy areas. Plank buttresses (flanges at the base of the trunk) help support it in soft ground, and above-ground breathing roots supply air. Pukatea grows in lowland swamp forest throughout the North Island, often along with the tall conifer, kahikatea. In the eastern South Island, it is confined to northern Marlborough, but in the west it grows as far south as Fiordland.
Pukatea’s leaves are 40–75 millimetres long, oblong, serrated, dark green and glossy above, paler below. The flowers are very small, with separate male and female flowers on a single tree. Its fruits, which are dispersed by wind, are 25 millimetres long and clad in silky hairs.
Pukatea timber has occasionally been used in boat building, especially planking in dinghies.
One of New Zealand’s best firewoods, black maire (Nestegis cunninghamii) has all but disappeared from the North Island forests where it was once common. It belongs to the olive family, and is the largest of four New Zealand maire species. It grows to 23 metres in height with a stout trunk up to 1.5 metres in diameter. Black maire is found in lowland and mountain forest throughout the North Island, and on the northern tip of the South Island.
Juvenile black maire have spindly stems with long, narrow, leathery leaves. Adults’ leaves are long and tapering at the outer end, and the tree has a sturdy, straight trunk. Its tiny cream flowers grow on hairy spikes, with male and female flowers on separate trees. Black maire’s egg-shaped fruits are 1 centimetre long, red and fleshy.
Black maire has dense, even-grained timber, dark brown in colour and often streaked with black. Māori used it for digging sticks and mallets, and as wedges for splitting wood. In the 1900s boatbuilders also favoured black maire timber for their mallets. Black maire burns slowly with great heat, and between the 1920s and 1960s most accessible stands were felled for firewood.
The timber was also used for framing railway carriages and machinery, and building bridges. In recent years it has been used for woodturning and specialist items such as golf-putter heads and woodwind instruments.
Hīnau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) is a forest tree up to 20 metres tall (usually less), with a broad spreading crown and a trunk of a metre or more in diameter. It grows in lowland and mountain forests up to 600 metres above sea level throughout much of New Zealand, but is absent from Stewart Island and rare in the eastern South Island.
Juvenile hīnau leaves are longer and narrower than adult leaves. They look similar to juvenile leaves of rewarewa, but have edges that roll under. Hīnau has attractive hanging clumps of bell-shaped white flowers in late spring, and 1.5-centimetre-long, oval purple fruits at the end of summer. Birds eat the fruit and distribute the seed.
Māori processed the fruits into a coarse type of flour, which they baked into cakes. They also used the bark to make a blue-black dye.
Hīnau has a white, medium-density sapwood that was seldom used in the past. One specialist use was for the runners on Antarctic sleds. Its durable dark heartwood was used instead of tōtara for house piles and fence posts.