September 26, 2023
Iti rearea teitei kahikatea ka taea. Although very small, the bellbird can still reach the tip of the mighty kahikatea.
This piece of Māori wisdom talks to the power of persistence and determination of the bellbird to reach the great heights of the kahikatea.
Kahikatea are the tallest of our native forest giants. Many surviving trees are over 600 years old and reach 65m in height. One specimen in Fiordland, so completely draped with vines, epiphytes and ferns that its top is hidden from sight, is said to be close to a thousand years old.
Kahikatea have flaring buttress roots for anchorage and nutrient uptake in soggy soils, straight trunks and a high shaggy crown. They are a coniferous podocarp, one of the ancient life forms on the planet. They have no flowers and instead have male and female cones.
Kahikatea once formed massive, dense stands around lakes, on marshlands and low-lying, flood-prone river valleys and coastal plains like the Waikato, where distinctive remnant patches can still be seen.
Land clearance for cultivation impacted kahikatea forests as Māori settlements grew prior to the arrival of the Pākeha, but plenty remained. However, in just eight years in the early 20th century, some 63% of surviving kahikatea forest was felled. Kahikatea timber is odourless and easily worked, making it ideal packaging for the booming butter and cheese export industry.
Loss of so many kahikatea meant loss of an abundant seasonal food source. A mature female tree can yield several million (roughly 800 kg) small, bright orangey red fruit in a good year. These are eaten and dispersed by tūī, korimako (bellbird), kākā and kererū as well as lizards and invertebrates. People also ate the fruit. Māori gathered basketfuls for hākari, great feasts, where a tribe’s mana was reflected in the generosity of the hosts.
Kahikatea also support many other small plants in their branches, epiphytes and ferns, vines reaching for the light high above the forest floor. Up to 100 different species have been recorded in one tree alone.
These ancient, flowerless, cone-bearing trees are once again growing and seeding on Motutapu, where almost 2,500 have been planted over the past 14 years from seeds raised in the Motutapu Restoration Trust nursery. The island’s expanding populations of native birds, lizards and invertebrates that feed on the tree will ensure its spread, reducing soil loss from wetlands, and sedimentation of the waters of the Hauraki Gulf.