Radiata pine was first introduced to New Zealand in the late 1850s to see if would be a good candidate for widespread planting. Its excellent growth rate prompted seed imports from California in the 1870s, mainly for shelter belts and woodlots.
By the first forestry planting boom in the 1920s and 1930s, it had been adopted as the species of choice. It proved to be versatile and grew well throughout New Zealand on a variety of soil types, including coastal sands, heavy clays, gravels and volcanic ash deposits.
The first recorded planting of radiata pine in New Zealand was in 1859, at Mt Peel Station in South Canterbury. The first recorded use of radiata pine timber in New Zealand was in 1893 at Leslie Hills Station, near Culverden, when Duncan Rutherford milled some 20-year-old pines and used their timber for farm buildings.
The first New Zealand radiata pine plantations were grown from seed collected from farm shelter belts. In its raw, undomesticated state it was a coarse and highly variable tree. Although usually healthy and fast growing, it also tended to grow many branches and a forked trunk.
To improve the quality of radiata pine, a genetic research programme was started in the 1950s. Trees of superior growth and form were selected and propagated by grafting. The grafted pines were planted out at wide spacing in seed orchards away from other plantations, to prevent pollen contamination. The first improved radiata pines were planted in forests in 1970.
Improvement programmes have continued, with selection criteria becoming increasingly complex and the testing of parent stock more stringent. Through controlled cross-breeding, hybridisation and advanced plant propagation techniques, scientists have developed breeds that:
- are adapted to particular climatic zones and soil types
- are resistant to foliage diseases such as dothistroma needle blight
- produce wood that is stronger or more durable.