Tōtara is a forest giant, with a massive woody trunk that holds aloft thousands of sharp needle-like leaves. The name ‘tōtara’ is probably a reference to these spiky leaves, as the word tara in Māori means spike or thorn and is used for other spiky animals and plants. Tōtara is covered in thick, stringy bark and can live for over 1000 years. It earned the respect of Māori, who referred to it as Rakau Rangatira – chiefly tree – and its timber was prized above all others.
Tōtara is remarkably resistant to rot, and fallen logs can last for incredible lengths of time. When Maori first settled the central Otago region, the landscape was dominated by a vast Tōtara forest. The trees were cleared with fire, and gave way to huge tracts of grassland. When Europeans arrived some 500 years later, they found fallen Tōtara logs that were still in good condition and used them to construct fence posts.
The chemical compound Totarol was first identified in the heartwood of dead Tōtara trees and is thought to be responsible for the tree’s exceptional resistance to decay. Totarol has demonstrated a range of antibacterial and therapeutic properties that make it a promising candidate for future drug research. It is currently used in natural medicines and cosmetics, and may be an effective treatment for dental plaque and acne.
Today, it is common to see Tōtara dotted amongst farms and paddocks, as the prickly leaves protect it from grazing by stock. Birds such as Tui and Kererū assist with its dispersal, allowing it to colonise open pasture. In Northland, the spread of Tōtara into farmland is so vigorous that many farmers treat it as a weed
Medicine, Food & Timber
Tōtara was used medicinally by both Māori and European settlers for a range of ailments. The wood was burned to produce a smoke which could be used in the treatment of hemorrhoids and venereal diseases. Bushmen would make an infusion of the bitter leaves for upset stomachs, and the inner bark could be boiled to produce a sweet liquid to treat fevers. The fleshy red berries are also edible and Māori men would climb the trees to collect them in baskets.
Tōtara produces a very high quality timber prized by both Māori and Europeans. It was used by Europeans for tasks requiring strength and durability, such as in fence posts, floor pilings and railway sleepers. For Māori it was used as the primary wood for carving as it can be shaped easily using simple stone tools. Tōtara was used to construct houses, tools, weapons, musical instruments toys, and Tōtara carvings often adorn the front of Marae. It was the preferred wood for making waka, as it is light, straight and rot-resistant. A single log could be made into a mighty war canoe capable of bearing 100 warriors into battle.