Māpou is a tough little tree. It manages to thrive just about anywhere, colonising bare ground as well as the understory of dense forests. It’s also able to cope with browsing from the hoardes of introduced mammals that plague New Zealand forests, as it has unpalatable leaves that sheep and cattle tend to avoid. Even Brushtail Possums don’t seem to like the taste, and will seek out other plants where available.
It’s other name is Red Matipo, on account of its red branches, a key characteristic which sets it apart from similar looking species. Its flowers grow along the stem rather than the branches and produce clusters of tiny dark berries. These are a favourite for birds such as kererū, tui, silvereye and bellbird.
The plant had a range of uses in Māori culture. Māpou tea was drunk as a general health tonic and to ease toothache and clean teeth. A chemical analysis of the leaves show they contain glucorinic acid which is used in modern arthritis treatments. Māpou produces a stringy wood than tends to bend rather than break. Europeans made use of the timber in the making of cabinets while Māori used it to make keels for waka, handles for adzes and digging sticks for planting Kumara.
Māpou branches also served an important ritual and symbolic role, and were used by the tohunga during baptisms, funerals and Kumara planting rituals. The tree was sometimes known as the ‘loin cloth of Whānui’, the Maori name for the star Vega. Maori tradition holds that the Kumara originated with Whānui but was stolen and brought to earth by Rongo – the god of cultivated food.