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Plants in New Zealand

Gondwana - the evolution of New Zealand’s endemic plants

Available as a download: click hereNew Zealand plants are very special, they evolved slowly amongst unique geology and animals and now are extremely ecologically diverse. 80 million years ago the landmass was connected to Australia and even Chile. However New Zealand lost its Australian look in the last cold snap 10,000 years ago. In the northern hemisphere many trees didn’t survive the ice age, but as the glaciers didn’t cover all of New Zealand the ancient Podocarp and Kauri forests have survived. Due to the islands’ isolation they have not been replaced by newer species. 85% of all flowering plants are still endemic, appearing nowhere else in the world.

New Zealand rainforestNZ plants evolved with different pollinators. Flowers relied on general pollinators (colour-blind flies, moths and beetles) or even birds and didn’t have to develop colourful variations, so a typical flower would be green or white (= easy to spot at night) and small. Other juvenile trees protected themselves from being eaten. The Lancewood avoids the tall Moa birds as it has spikey hard leaves when young, but when it reaches a height of about 4 metres it develops normal leaves like other trees. No one has told the Lancewood that Moas no longer exist.

When the islands formed 80 million years ago mammals were not part of the picture, leaving many species vulnerable to introduced species like the Australian Possum (eating new tree shoots and leaves - 20,000 tonnes a day) or deer (nibbling on trees and shrubs and polishing antlers).

While the Kauri tree may well be 200 million years old there have been other plants which evolved quickly. The alps formed relatively late in a very short time, nonetheless 93% of 600 species of alpine plants are endemic.

All sorts of climates

The humid Pacific climate offers plenty of strong sun, but also plenty of rainfall, which is fantastic for vegetation. Together with volcanic soils most plants do very well in this climate. Evergreen rainforests are common everywhere, the trees retain their leaves in winter and cows are left outside year round. Even the trees grow faster than elsewhere, apparently the Californian Redwood in Rotorua grows three times faster than where it comes from.

The climate range stretches from subtropical to alpine, from rainforests with a diversity as complex as tropical jungle to enduring Edelweiss in snowy mountain regions. The so-called “Taupo line” divides the North Island because Kauri, Puriri, Mangroves and others seem to only grow above it. The South Island again has many more non-woody plants like shrubs, flowers and grasses.

Te Puke Kiwifruit Capital of the worldThe climate also favours the horticultural industry, New Zealand major crops are barley, wheat, maize, vegetables, kiwifruit, grapes, avocados, pipfruit, citrus, berryfruit, olives, kumara, and of course all that grass for sheep and cows.

Wellington is not the only capital of New Zealand: Te Puke is the Kiwifruit capital, Blenheim the Wine capital, Hastings the apple and pear capital, Opiki the Potato capital, Katikati the Avocado capital, Dargaville the Kumara capital, Kerikeri the Citrus capital etc. Many fruit species came from much harsher climates and the milder winters in New Zealand (particularly in the north) increase their chance of survival and extend their fruiting season.


The ecological balance has been disturbed for a long time, not only by the disappearance of the majority of native forests but also by over 300 introduced pest plants (weeds) which now threaten the survival of over 60 native plant species. Weeds multiply faster than native plants and thrive on the climatic conditions, taking over many niches in the landscape, stealing away nutrients in the soil or suffocating plants by climbing over them.

Interesting New Zealand plants:

Tree fern (Ponga / Mamaku)

Tree Fern

New Zealand forests feel as if a dinosaur might appear any moment - this is probably due to the ancient tree ferns which haven’t changed much in the last few hundred million years. There are eight species of tree ferns (nearly 200 native fern species), of which the best known is the Silver Fern (or Ponga) and the tallest is the black Mamaku, an astonishing tree fern that grows to 20 meters height.

While the bracken fern roots were the most important staple diet of Maori, other parts of the tree ferns are edible after cooking. As a very beautiful, useful and even medicinal plant it turned into a Kiwi icon. You’ll see the young new fern fronds (Koru) or Silver Fern leaves in many traditional Maori carvings, but also modern brand logos and stylish designs.


NikauEven though you can find many palm trees in New Zealand, this is the only native one. It is an impressive sight both in dark forests with wide 3m long leaves or thinly reaching up to the sunlight with a height of 15 meters.

They generally prefer to grow in shady areas and along streams in the bush, where other palms would not thrive at all. They produce fruit from February to November, which the native Wood Pigeons love to eat.

Also see our Introduction to New Zealand animals ebook:

New Zealand Animals: E-Book


KauriKauri forests existed nearly 200 million years ago, and the New Zealand Kauri is the biggest and oldest of the Pacific Kauri tree family. Now only about 1% of these forests remain, the biggest being the Waipoua Forest in Northland where the largest trees can easily be visited. Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) and Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) were once only allowed to be Kauri leavesapproached by Maori priests. Both trees are unique and radiate with personality, Tane Mahuta in height (51 metres) and volume (244.5 m³) and Te Matua Ngahere in width (> 16 metres circumference). Apparently there have been trees up to 4,000 years old and nearly 27 metres in circumference, lost in forest fires in the 19th century.

Kauri gum is the resin which protects wounds to the tree, used by Maori as a chewing gum and burnt used as a tattoo colour. It was later harvested from swamps to use in varnishes and once allowed tens of thousands of people employment in Northland.

Now it’s as rare as the 50,000 year old swamp Kauri timber which is used for handicrafts and furniture. Today’s protected Kauri trees currently face a new threat in the form of the Kauri dieback disease, caused by a fungus-like organism: please make sure your shoes are clean of dirt before and after visiting a Kauri forest.  


Pohutukawa flowersAnother iconic tree of New Zealand, also called the christmas tree because it flowers a Pohutukawabeautiful red colour around christmas time. Their gnarly branches extend in all directions, a stunning sight in steep coastal positions, where they survive due to salt tolerant aerial roots. The bushy red flowers provide nectar for the birds and bees, they are finer than the similar Rata flowers (a similar tree which in the north starts as a vine and later completely takes over its host tree).

Due to the equally hardy introduced pines their sight threatens to slowly disappear from coastal edges. The largest Pohutukawa has a trunk of nearly 11 metres and a spread of 38 metres, there are also rare pink and yellow flowering trees.

Supplejack (Kareao or Pirita)

SupplejackIf you see a tangled mess of telephone like cables in the bush then you have probably found the flexible stems of the Supplejack tree. It climbs skywards without forming any leaves for as long as it takes to reach the sunshine.

By then it will suddenly form leaves and have fruit like other trees. It was once a great material to weave fish pots.

Cabbage tree (Ti Kouka)

Cabbage TreeThe same name is used all over the world for other trees. The New Zealand Cabbage tree looks like a palm, grows up to 20 metres and makes any sheep paddock look exotic, but it belongs to a genus of trees and plants common in the Pacific Ocean (Cordyline).

The heart, roots and shoots are indeed edible after cooking  - a good carbohydrate source - and its leaves are great to make ropes.

Flax (Harakeke)

New Zealand FlaxEven though the name is shared with other plants in the world, this is another unique New Zealand icon. With leaves up to 3 metres long you will easily recognise Flax in most natural environments. The Tui birds will defend their flax territory against other birds, they love to drink the nectar from the spring flowers which grow on very long beautiful stems.

Medicinal and practical uses were countless, it was especially a great fibre source, Maori traded Flax fibres with the British to make ropes and today Flax weaving is one of the great revived Maori art forms.

Tea tree (Manuka / Kanuka)

Tea Tree mazeCaptain James Cook once used its leaves to make a tea against skurvy, today the delicious honey is world famous because it can have antibiotic and antifungal properties (check for an “UMF rating” of 5 or more). Tea Tree oil is one of the best treatments against itchy sandfly bites. Manuka can grow as a low shrub or up to 5 metres, depending on exposure and soil.

Its taller brother the Kanuka can grow to 30 metres, its leaves are softer than Manuka. New Zealand tea trees and their products are not the same as Australian Melaleuca trees with the same name.


Often found at the edge of native bush, recognisable by its heart shaped leaves with holes made by caterpillars and bamboo like stems with thick joints, Kawakawa is an old medicinal plant which for example can be used as a tea against stomach cramps (caution: can be confused with poisonous plants). It has a slightly anaesthetic effect and is related to the Polynesian pepper tree Kava (where the roots are used for a tranquilising drink).


Pouakani TotaraRecognisable by its typical pinkish bark and spikey needle leaves, this is one of the big New Zealand trees, compared by Maori to the rank of a chief, perfect timber for war canoes and carving. The timber was also used by European settlers, for railway sleepers and telegraph poles. They grow to 40 metres and once had trunks of up to 6 metres in diameter.

The biggest Totara today can be found in Pureora Forest, 1’800 years old, with a diameter of 3.6 metres and named Pouakani. The Totara is part of the ancient podocarp family of trees.


RimuAlso a podocarp, this beautiful conifer with long drooping branches can get up to 1,000 years old and grow 50 metres tall. It was once logged extensively but today it is mainly used for beautiful high quality furniture.

Birds like to eat the seeds and this way help to disperse them, this is one of the more common New Zealand trees. Also known as Red Pine.


Kahikatea groveThis ancient podocarp tree is the tallest tree in New Zealand, reaching up to 60 metres. It once covered the flat and swampy areas but today only 2% of its forests remain, the rest was probably converted to farm land. The timber was used for butter boxes and cheese crates, but is not durable enough for building.

The seeds are popular with native birds. It is also known as White Pine.

Southern Beech

Another Gondwana survivor, beech forests still constitute around half of all native New Zealand forests and are more common on the South Island and at higher altitude. Contrary to Chilean or European beech species they are evergreen throughout the year and have smaller leaves. There are four species, the up to 40 metre high Red Beech, the well distributed Silver Beech, the Hard Beech and the Black Beech (with the subspecies Mountain Beech). The use of their timber was limited due to hardness and / or durability.


PuririThe Puriri tree looks quite tropical, especially when the roots climb over forest rocks. Their bark is usually rugged and covered with moth holes. The fact that it flowers and carries fruit at the same time is quite special, this can happen all year round.

While Tui drink the nectar the Wood Pigeons are the only birds able to swallow the big fruits whole and thus disperse them.

Lancewood (Horoeka)

LancewoodThis is a very strange plant as it looks completely different before it matures into a normal tree. After approximately 15 years the hard spikey long leaves suddenly turn into wider and softer leaves, forming a bushy crown up to a height of 15 metres. An interesting and credible theory claims that this tree protected itself from grazing Moa birds which could reach up to 4 metres. Once they grow beyond Moa size growth resumes with edible leaves, flowers and fruits.

The young leaves can be used as shoelaces (just in case yours get stolen by a Kea).

Mangrove (Manawa)

MangroveThe New Zealand Mangrove species can be found from East Africa to Fiji. Because it doesn’t like frost it can only be found in the North Island, the further north the bigger they are - up to 12 metres. They live in salty estuaries where the soil lacks oxygen, so they absorb it through aerial roots sticking out of the ground.

There are many heated discussions whether Mangroves are good or not. They thrive on additional nutrients from fertilisers and also expand their habitat by how they store sediments (and their own dropped leaves). They can clog up waterways and reduce the value of water front properties. At least the birds and smaller marine creatures enjoy the shelter and protection, Mangroves also protect the coast line against storm damage.

Vegetable Sheep

 In New Zealand sheep even grow on the mountains - in the form of Vegetable Sheep! They may resemble sheep, in reality they are cushion plants formed from thousands of small plants with woolly leaves on the outside. This helps to better conserve humidity and warmth in the harsh climate.

There are many more native New Zealand trees, see the Department of Conservation for more information (

Some interesting New Zealand gardens to visit

Hamilton GardensHamilton Gardens

Each year 600,000 visitors enjoy the 58 hectares of fantastic gardens with many different exciting themes: there's a Chinese Scholar's Garden, an English Flower Garden, a Japanese Garden of Contemplation, an American Modernist Garden, an Italian Renaissance Garden and an Indian Char Bagh Garden! Also Rogers Rose Garden, New Zealand Cultivar Garden, Rhododendron Lawn, Hammond Camellia Garden, Victorian Flower Garden, Herb Garden, Kitchen Garden, Sustainable Backyard Garden, Bussaco Woodland, the Hamilton East Cemetery, the Echo Bank Bush and a Valley Walk! Admission to all areas of Hamilton Gardens is free.

Auckland Botanic Gardens

Auckland Botanic GardensIn Auckland's mild, moist climate a wide variety of plants can be successfully grown. The extensive native plant collections feature endangered plants, a forest walk, a flax weaving collection and a native plant identification trail. The Gondwana Arboretum brings together species from various parts of the southern hemisphere. The Edible Garden is a collection of fruit, vegetables, nuts and edible flowers. The Perennial Garden is especially colourful from October to April. The palm garden contains New Zealand's largest public collection of palms. The Magnolia Garden has the largest collection of magnolias in New Zealand. The Salvia Collection is New Zealand's largest with more than 200 plants species, cultivars and hybrids. The Rock Garden boasts the largest outdoor collection of cacti and succulents in New Zealand. The African Garden holds plants mainly from the southern most part of Africa - the Cape Floral Region. Spring Blossom Valley's main features are a large group of prunus trees underplanted with daffodils. The Rose Garden's five themed gardens combine roses in creative combinations. 64 hectares and over 10,000 plants. Entry to the Gardens is free of charge.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Travel in New Zealand - an introduction for travellers to Aotearoa, 'land of the long white cloud'.Travel New Zealand Ebook Founded in 1863 with the planting of an English Oak tree, the Gardens now features one of the finest collections of exotic and native plants found in New Zealand. Towering majestic trees - many over 120 years old - dominate the Gardens, forming a striking backdrop to the extensive themed plant collections and sweeping lawns. A loop of the gently-flowing Avon River, criss-crossed by bridges, encloses a large part of the Gardens while the adjacent 164 hectare Hagley Park enhances its natural splendour. The Gardens are an oasis in the city of Christchurch - 21 hectares of beautiful horticultural displays, several conservatories, memorials, garden art and walking tracks. The Gardens are open every day of the year and admission is free.

Wellington Botanic Garden

25 hectares of unique landscape, protected native forest, conifers, specialised plant collections, colourful floral displays, and views over Wellington city. It is classified as a Garden of National Significance by the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and is an Historic Places Trust Heritage Area. The Garden was established in 1868. Collection: Australian Garden, Begonia House, Camellias, Exotic Forest, Fragrant Garden, Herb Garden, Horseshoe Bend with Asian woodland plants and trees, Lady Norwood Rose Garden, Magnolias, M?ori Flax Collections, Native Forest,  Ornamental Grasses, Perennials, Rhododendrons, Rock Gardens and Succulents. Entry is free.

Dunedin Botanic Garden

Many different collections: The Alpine House is a sheltered and secure environment for alpine plants and bulbs. The Arboretum is a collection of deciduous and evergreen trees. The Geographic plant collections has plants from all around the world, grouped by continent. The Winter Garden Glasshouse is an Edwardian style building that contains a range of plants form tropical, desert and sub-tropical regions. In the sunken Herb Garden you can savour the scents of herbs or muse by the fountain. The Water Garden provides the ideal environment for mainly exotic plants that have adapted to moist, boggy and aquatic situations. Also Camellia Collection. Clive Lister Garden, Native plant collection, Rhododendron Dell, Rose Garden, Rock Garden and Herbaceous Borders. Over 200 birds in the Aviary. Free entry.

New Plymouth Pukekura Park

The park covers about 52 ha (128 acres) and contains a diverse range of landscapes, including many plant collections, exotic specimen trees, formal gardens, lakes and walking trails through native bush. The park includes the Fernery as well as the adjacent garden estate area of Brooklands, home to the acclaimed TSB Bowl of Brooklands and Brooklands Zoo. The Gables was built in 1848 on instructions from Governor Sir George Grey, it is the oldest colonial hospital still standing in New Zealand. In 2001 a traditional torii gate was built to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of New Plymouth's sister city relationship with Mishima, Japan. The Kunming Garden in Brooklands was a gift from the Mayor of Kunming. Pukekura Park opened in 1876 and was a major location for the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai. (see for Pukekura Park)

Queens Park Invercargill

The 81ha jewel in the centre of the city offers numerous botanical attractions, from the rhododendron dell, to the formal bog garden and the azalea section. There is also a significant New Zealand plant section, a new sub-Antarctic Islands garden, the Winter Gardens contains an extensive collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants, the largest and most comprehensive collection of roses of its type in New Zealand and the Japanese Garden consisting of a Japanese lantern, dry waterfall, river of pebbles, garden stream and mountain range, along with a Tea House. Free entry. (search for Queens Park)

Cornwall Park Auckland

The 172 ha park has tree plantings dating back over the past 150 years, is renowned for its landscape design and its wide variety of mature trees. It is centred on a volcanic cone, Maungakiekie (or One Tree Hill), with many interesting geological features. A pre-European Maori fortification (pa) was built on the cone, many features of which can still be seen today. Free entry.

Whangarei Quarry GardenWhangarei Quarry Garden

Considering that it is a volunteer project which only started in 1997, with free entry and funded by donations, the variety and maturity of spectacular exotic plants is astonishing, it is now also a garden of national significance. The success is also due to the fantastic setting within the terraced amphitheatre of an old quarry. The stone walls conserve the heat from morning sun to sunset, the steep walls keep the wind out and two scenic waterfalls with a lake provide the necessary water for plants to thrive. New visitor centre with cafe.

Other gardens:

Otago Peninsula: Larnach Castle Garden
Wellington: Otari-Wilton's Bush (
New Plymouth: Pukeiti Gardens (
Hamilton: Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park (
Napier: Trellinoe Park (
Gisborne: Eastwoodhill - National Arboretum of New Zealand (
Ashburton: Trott's Garden
For more see New Zealand Garden’s Trust (

Spanish course for travellers - Ebook

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