Matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia) foliage
comments 16

Matai- vanquished giant of New Zealand’s dry forests?

I’ve long found New Zealand’s black pine, the matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia) to be a special tree. From a dishevelled juvenile, It can grow into one of our tallest and oldest plants. Its foliage, unlike the delicate feathers of its smaller relative the miro, has a more scruffy appearance. It is by no means rare, but its distribution is scattered – and this may be instructive.

J.T. Holloway found matai to be very instructive, and he focussed 19 pages of his hypothesis on climate-change and forests in the South Island around it (Holloway 1954). He pointed out that although matai were widely-distributed, forests in the drier, eastern side of the South Island in which matai was prominent tended to be “discontinuous small pockets of forest surrounded by tussock grasslands, manuka scrublands or, more rarely, by beech forests of varying type.” He could find no evidence that current climate or soil was behind this although in none of the “pocket handkerchief” sized fragments did matai appear to be regenerating. Holloway argued – with basically circumstantial evidence – that these forests with matai had once been more continuous. There had then been a climate change coinciding with early Polynesian times. This simultaneously facilitated the burning of these drier forests (that also included kahikatea/Dacrycarpus and totara/Podocarpus) and hampered their regeneration.

Since then, there has been further evidence uncovered for more widespread matai. In 1963 Cox and Mead published their research into the complex of buried river deposits and soils, from near Christchurch. Matai remains were prominent as charcoal and seeds. Burrows (1980) and Burrows et al. (1981, 1984) found matai remains associated with moas at The Deans and Pyramid Valley in Canterbury, and Scaifes Lagoon on the edge of Lake Wanaka. Scaifes Lagoon is just 5 km to the east of the two ‘most central’ living matai that I am aware of. One is up in a rock fall above Diamond Lake, while the other is on the edge of the West Wanaka road, near the lake. I also recall seeing matai seeds in the swamp peat about 2 km to the east of Scaifes when I was about 10. A further occurrence is a small fragment of cuticle figured by Wood et al. (2012) as ‘podocarp’, from the edge off Lake Wakatipu, which is matai. These are all remains of what was once much more extensive forest in New Zealand (from Wanaka, forest would once have extended through the Motutapu Valley to Queenstown, large tracts of forest occurred across the Southland Plains, as well as near Christchurch.

The matai above Diamond Lake, near Wanaka. The matai tree is right on the shadow line, towards the left.

The matai above Diamond Lake. It’s right on the shadow line, towards the left.

Close up of the trunk of the Diamond Lake matai tree

Close up of the trunk of the Diamond Lake matai.

Cox and Mead’s work may appear to only extend the original range of matai slightly to the west of where it now occurs. However, it puts them on the drier plains rather than the uplands of Banks Peninsula. With this evidence it is easier to imagine matais on the plains further to the south, and perhaps even in Central Otago.

Map of Matai tree records in the South Island, New Zealand.

Matai records in the South Island, New Zealand. Red = current records from the GBIF (I note this doesnt include some sites such as Geraldine), blue = charcoal in Cox and Mead (1963), black = charcoal in Wardle (2001), yellow=swamp remains in Burrows (1980) and Burrows et al. (1981, 1984), brown = pollen localities (Clark et al. 1996; McGlone, 2001; McGlone et al. 1995), pink = moa coprolite in Wood et al (2012).

And it’s there that things become curious. In a study of the pollen record over the last few thousand years in the semi-arid interior of Central Otago, matai pollen was found to be common -up to about 10%  at 800 m asl in the Kawarau Gorge and up to 34% at 1400 m asl on the Old Man Range and to nearly 40% at 1450 m asl on Mt Tennyson  in the Nokomai (McGlone et al. 1995). For Mt Tenneyson they wrote (p.9): Tall podocarp trees have well dispersed pollen, and the high percentages of these types reflect extensive lowland and montane forests in the immediate region. For the Kawarau Gorge they concluded (p. 14):

Prumnopitys taxifolia, Dacrycarpus, Podocarpus, Hoheria/Plagianthus, and Metrosideros increase at the same time, indicating reafforestation of more distant areas, and the presence of local forest, possibly consisting of stands of species such as Plagianthus regius and Podocarpus hallii.


We conclude that Phyllocladus/Podocarpus low forest-scrub dominated the Kawarau Gorge area, most likely as a mosaic of grassland and stands of divaricating and xeromorphic shrubs, and that tall podocarp forest never penetrated the region.

Subsequently, pollen from a lower site on the Old Man Range, the Earnscleugh Cave (540 m asl) was documented (Clark et al. 1996) where matai reached up to 20%. These authors wrote (Clark et al., 1996, p. 370):

The amount of podocarp pollen was substantial and the most likely explanation is that small stands of matai, totara, kahikatea and probably even rimu grew in the more sheltered and damper environments of the valley sides in this region.

and then (Clark et al., 1996, p. 375):

It is not entirely clear where the abundant podocarp tree pollen at these upland sites came from. The results from Eamscleugh Cave suggest that stands of podocarps, growing in the river valleys and gorges on the sides of the ranges, were the primary source of this upland pollen rain.

Two years later, another investigation of the palynology of Central Otago found up to 20% matai in the Ida Valley (McGlone and Moar 1998). These authors wrote (p. 97) that the matai (and some other podocarps):

most likely represent pollen rain from podocarp standsoutside the Idaburn valley region, as there is no other evidence for these podocarps ever having grown in this semi-arid area .

This seems like a step away from earlier comments, as there was no “other” evidence in those places either. This view was clarfied in McGlone (2001):

p. 4  It seems highly unlikely that Prumnopitys taxifolia was present within the semi-arid area, as it is now absent from central districts, and its altitudinal limit of 300- 600 m in the southern South Island (Hinds and Reid, 1957) makes it improbable that it could have had a presence in the higher rainfall forest zone on the upper slopes of the interior ranges.


p. 8 Other than Podocarpus hallii, tall podocarp species were likely to have been almost entirely absent from the drier inland districts of Central Otago and south Canterbury. It is possible that occasional small stands grew in damp gorges, as suggested by Clark et al. (1996), but there is no direct evidence that they did so.

There is no problem with matai pollen blowing the distance from the coast to the interior – but it still has to dominate over the local taxa. At this point P. Wardle (2001) published the results of his investigation into buried logs and charcoals in the upper Clutha Valley. This extended the previous range of matai to Harwich (Mou Waho) Island within Lake Wanaka, and to sites around Lake Hawea. These are wetter areas, to the west of Central Otago proper. Intriguingly, at the same times as palynologists may be getting cold feet about matai in Central Otago, vegetation modellers have thrown a furfie. Walker et al. (2004) considered all the above evidence and wrote (p. 631):

Subfossil evidence and current distributions suggest that Prumnopitys taxifolia may have occurred locally on steep fans, scarps, and talus fringing the basin floors…

This is going much further than the palynologists cagey admission of matai to isolated mountain gullies and gorges – this is the edge of the Clutha Basin upstream of Cromwell and the Manuherikia upstream of Alexandra. In addition Walker et al. (2004, p. 633) wrote:

matai “may have occurred at least locally on the valley floors and lower slopes of the Shag and Taieri catchments

Native tree plantings on road-sides, parks, and other public places have really taken off in the last few decades, including in the drier parts of central South Island. Some of these are now established patches of broad-leaved angiosperms, at the right stage where some conifers – such as the matai, could be slipped in. Some effort should be made to reintroduce matai back to those areas where we know it once existed – using the genestock of the most marginal survivors.

Burrows, C. J. 1980: Some empirical information concerning the diet of moas. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 3: 125-130.
Burrows, C. J., McCulloch, B. & Trotter, M.M. 1981: The diet of moas based on gizzard contents samples from Pyramid Valley, North Canterbury, and Scaifes Lagoon, Lake Wanaka, Otago (New Zealand). Records Of The Canterbury Museum 9(6): 309-336.
Burrows, C. J., McSaveney, M. J., Scarlett, R. J. & Turnbull, B. 1984: Late Holocene forest horizons and a Dinornis moa from an earthflow on North Dean, North Canterbury (New Zealand). Records Of The Canterbury Museum 10(1): 1-8.
Clark, G. R., Petchey, P., McGlone, M. S. & Bristow, P. 1996: Faunal and floral remains from Earnscleugh Cave, Central Otago, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 26(3): 363-380.
Cox, J. E. & Mead, C. B. 1963: Soil evidence relating to post~glacial climate on the Canterbury Plains. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 10: 28-38.
GBIF: Matai distribution courtesy of New Zealand National Plant Herbarium (CHR), New Zealand Biodiversity Recording Network, New Zealand National Vegetation Survey Databank, (all LCR), (Accessed through GBIF Data Portal,,  30.04.13).
Holloway, J. T. 1954: Forests and climates in the south island of New Zealand. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 82: 329-410.
McGlone, M. S. 2001: The origin of the indigenous grasslands of southeastern South Island in relation to pre-human woody ecosystems. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 25: 1-15.
McGlone, M. S., Mark, A. F. & Bell, D. 1995: Late Pleistocene and Holocene vegetation history, Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 25(1): 1-22.
McGlone, M. S. & Moar, N. T. 1998: Dryland Holocene vegetation history, Central Otago and the Mackenzie Basin, South Island, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 36: 91-111
Walker, S., Lee, W. G. & Rogers, G. M. 2004: Pre-settlement woody vegetation of Central Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 42: 613-64
Wardle, P. 2001: Holocene forest fires in the upper Clutha district, Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 39: 523-542.
Wood, J. R., Wilmshurst, J. M., Worthy, T. H. & Cooper, A. 2012: First coprolite evidence for the diet of Anomalopteryx didiformis, an extinct forest ratite from New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 36: 164-170.


  1. Kevin Barker

    My brother is today measuring some huge Matai. Near Lake Kanieri. At least two have dbh greater than 2.0 m. One tree. Is 29 m tall 2.05 m dbh. Another 32 m tall and about 2.1 m dbh.

      • Kevin Barker

        Thanks Mike. My brother Phil Barker lives in Hokitika. He has recruited his friend Euan Mason a forestry Prof at Canterbury to give him a hand. Hopefully the figures will go online.
        I knew about a big Matai beside the road but this tree has a dbh of 1.5 ish. There could be more even bigger specimens. There are some very tall Kahikatea nearby. I measured one at about 60 m back in the 1990s.

        • It’s incredible what we still have in New Zealand. Part of me wants to make them more widely known – while the other is telling me to keep them dead secret’ . I think the line between ‘appreciation’ and somewhere to take another selfie is pretty thin. Tourism has probably done it for Tane Mahuta, but fingers-crossed the fungus epidemic may pass it by.

          • Kevin Barker

            I was not aware of any diseases attacking Matai. I guess there is always a possibility. I have seen somewhere a mention of other strains of Phytophera (spelling) including one associated with podocarps. But no mention of it being widespread. Yes Kauri dieback is a big threat up North at present. It has closed a lot of native bush to the public. I suspect mammalian predators are likely vectors as are water and air.

            The two big trees found and measured will go on the notable tree register. The part of Kanieri which contains the giant Matai is a section of forest quite close to a track network. It might be possible for DOC to make a side track to one of these giants. I have heard that a core sample from a nearby big Matai tree had a 1 mm per year growth rate. A 2.15 m dbh Matai is going to be in the order of 1000 years old +/- a few hundred years.
            Euan and Phil also found a 20 m long log that had fallen with a diameter over 2.0 m?? Not sure what species.

            These trees were probably mature before the first human visitors. Mind boggling stuff.
            Matai are the most beautiful tree. There is even one perhaps 80 years old in a garden in my street, Turama Road, Auckland. It has 4 trunks and a crown spread around 12 m. The property has just been sold and the tree may be destroyed by developers??? The tree is near Manukau road and visible of google maps.

  2. Kevin, they are my favourite tree too. Something slightly straggly about them. No, I haven’t heard of any fungal issues, but was just thinking of the effects of tourism. It’s very much on my mind now, as I’m in a part of the world where it seems overwhelming. I do hope the developers don’t get the one in your street – it sounds like a terrific specimen.

    • Kevin Barker

      As you may well know the laws were changed in NZ a few years back under a National Government. Property owners can now cut down trees willy nilly with the exception of a few trees with protection orders.
      A number of sizeable native trees have disappeared from Royal Oak in recent years.

      back to hunting down giant/large Matai I am pretty sure if there is one tree of a fair size in a forest then there are probably others that survived too. I bet the 235 dbh tree near Lake Ianthe that died in the 1990’s has a few neighbours of similar size. Maybe Phil and I will will investigate one day.

      There will certainly be other giants in the section of bush where Phil found his first couple of large trees.

      I would also like to investigate the large grove of Rimu and Miro in the Kanieri scenic reserve a few km away from the Matai. I have not ever seen really big Miro and I wonder if it is possible some trees get really big?? There will almost certainly be some giant Rimu too. I know about this grove as I have seen dozens of Kereru zooming around them in the 1990’s when I lived in Westland.

      I used to belong to SAR West Coast in the late 1990’s. I remember we did an exercise in river a valley South of Hokitika. Mikonui?? There were lots of felled Rimu many with impressive girths on the hill country on the South side of the river. They had been felled by loggers trying to get the timber out as the West Coast accord played out. The idea was if it is dropped it is not protected. The idea was to remove the tree butt logs using a big helicopter. Tragically a big Russian chopper crashed near Koiterangi. The giant trees were left to rot. I reckon there may still be some impressive standing trees there too. Some were enormous trees that were hard to climb over.

      Another impressive site is a few giant Southern Rata near the Styx saddle between mudflats and the saddle. Really huge stubby trees, probably 3-4 m dbh in some cases. I wonder if they are still alive or have the anti 1080 lobby been successful in preventing possum control there?. Therefore putting these trees at risk. They must be over a thousand years old. Rata is devastated if controls of possums is not done. Many of the West Coast valleys have been devastated by possum damage especially the Rata-Kamahi forests. Enough rambling…

      • Actually I wasn’t aware the laws had regressed that much… Accounts for a few things I’ve seen.
        I don’t know of any really big miro. I have one on my Haast property that is fairly normal – probably no more than 300 years old. As for the other trees, fantastic news to hear that new ones are being discovered. Just sad that some lasted so long, then were whacked when it looked like protection was coming up. I wonder what the West Coast would be like now if all the logging plans of the 1970s had gone ahead?

  3. Kevin Barker

    A third even bigger Lake Kanieri Matai has been measured by Phil Barker. It has a 232 cm dbh and is 407 points on the notable trees register.
    Hidden in plain site. Phil reports encountering more than half a dozen large 5.0 m + girth Matai trees when hunting down this tree.One wonders if even bigger trees are nearby??

      • Kevin Barker

        You are probably right re Miro. Still it is a significant native tree. There is a 36 m specimen near Mahinapui at treetops walkway.
        There are bugger all West Coast trees on the notable tree register. Phil’s Matai finds might prompt some activity. Great to see in some parts of NZ spectacular examples of botanical nature still exist unknown to humans. His first two discoveries made the West Coast times front page.
        I will try and send you some tree eye candy…

  4. My place was selectively logged, I guess 70s-80s. So my miro that was of no interest to them, is one of my prizes. A couple of gnarly kamahi might well be older. Pretty depressing driving up the Coast about a year ago and seeing dozens of the old kahikatea that had been left on farmland, blown down in a storm. Each
    one of those was probably older than most trees in some European countries…. Look forward to the eye-candy!

    • Kevin Barker

      A lot of the wood dropped in the cyclone storm was milled. A quick act was put through Parliament by the Nats. Bit of a Bonanza I suppose. The wood would(pun) have ended up off shore.
      Kamahi are great trees. They get big and gnarly and seem to be the main understory tree till the big podocarps get above. Perhaps Tawa dominates more in the North. I love the bush honey from Kamahi.
      I used to use Kamahi for firewood and Rats & Matai. When living in Hokitika. Kamahi takes at least a year to dry …
      Possum damage to broadleaf trees and Rata Kamahi forests on the Coast is depressing. Canopy collapse etc
      Some valley’s get predator control with 1080. But damage across some valley’s is significant and leads to other issues.
      If you are passing through Hoki look up Phil . He owns Stopforths a motel tourism venture .
      He is my twin. We have had a tree fixation since kids. I am an Auckland Physics teacher.
      We are planning to get some good representations of big West coast trees in the tree register over the next year or two . Rimu, Kahikatea. Cedars etc Hopefully this will lead to increased awareness etc.
      And keep us fit……

  5. I kept taking my eyes off the road and thinking, Jeez, I’d love a thin slab of just one of those – to see the rings. When I drove up not too long after, they didn’t seem to be there any more! Oh well…. My West Coast place is sort of public property – its certainly trapped at will by locals (I just want to keep vehicles out). But having lived in Brisbane for quite a while, in a house with two species of possum, it’s hard to feel really bad towards them. Last time I drove in, was at night. A mother and her young were running up the track, so softy me stops the car. Young possum turns, and runs towards my car lights. So I turn them off for a few seconds. Turning them on, and I see the mother is dashing back to her offspring, hurls it on her back, and dashes back up the track. Oh well….. (: Good luck with the tree register. Some friends of mine have got some Central Otago kowhai on that – some of them will be pre-European. I doubt many locals would be aware that Central has trees that old.

    • Kevin Barker

      Some of my friends were bushmen based at Hari Hari. They told me a few hundred m beyond thg main road many thousands of hectares have been clear felled. I have seen the devastation. Tall pole podocarps are likely to blow over if exposed.
      There are an awful lot of possums in NZ. NZ must be paradise for them…no real predators and plenty of food.
      I understand big Matai in West Coast have growth rings of the order of 0.6 mm apart. It is likely they grow faster when they get to the canopy. So a 1.16 m radius tree could be well over 1000 years old. Matai and Rimu have been shown to grow very slowly until they get to the light.
      I always thought the periodic Alpine fault ruptures flattened a lot of trees. The Kanieri Matai are only a few km from the main fault line. Perhaps skinny tall trees are more likely to topple over. Sturdy Matai survive…
      There must be parts of the Coast where the age of lots of trees is less than the last rupture.
      Anyway over Summer we will hopefully target a few of the Native behemoths….

      • Yes, I think there are a few places where you don’t have to go far to discover that what looks like a solid forest is just a facade in front of a well-logged area. As far as I understand, the Alpine Fault certainly plays an important part in the periodic disturbances that trigger some of those conifer cohorts. Though the ‘weather bombs’, like what we are getting right now, will be a big factor too, and I suspect increasingly so. A lot of the West Coast looks poised to collapse down various rivers where vegetation up in the catchment has vanished.

Leave a Reply