April - Taraire - Native Plant of the month
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Taraire are very distinctive endemic canopy trees. They have wide, oval leaves with sunken veins that give the upper leaf surface a slightly bubbly appearance - in botanical language this is called bullate. These leaves are leathery and thick and fall to the ground in drifts under trees but break down slowly, which means you often find out you are under a taraire by the delicious crunching leaves before you spot the canopy. Taraire only grow in the warmer northern parts of New Zealand and it is unusual to see them growing south of Tamaki Makaurau, but they are an important part of the canopy of forests in Northland and Auckland areas. They are often found growing in association with kauri, pohutukawa, rimu, miro, totara, and to a lesser extent towai, tanekaha and puriri.
Taraire belong to the Laurel plant family, which in New Zealand also includes tawa and pukatea, and internationally includes avocados, bay trees and cinnamon. Taraire fruit are edible to people as well as birds, although their resinous flavour is a bit of an acquired taste. The kernels of the fruit also used to be steamed or baked and eaten and this must have involved laborious effort to separate them from their tough husks.
Left: Unripe fruit, right: Ripe taraire fruit - photo by Ian Simpson (CC BY-NC)
While the fruit are a small reward for large effort as a human food source, they are a fantastic feast for birds. Only kereru and kokako are able to swallow the large fruit whole and disperse their seeds, but many other birds will also nibble at the flesh around the seeds. Kereru absolutely love taraire fruit and can form large flocks in their canopies when they are ripe so listen out for rustling and crashing in the branches during autumn.
Taraire seeds are usually very easy to germinate so you could try your hand at growing some of these trees at home. Collect a few fallen fruit, scrape away the flesh and sow them just under the surface of some potting mix in a seed tray or pot. Young seedlings and other new growth have a fuzzy coat of orangey hairs. Taraire like to grow in rich soil that doesn’t dry out in summer, but is also
not water logged. They seem to particularly enjoy growing in damp gullies, alongside streams or wetlands.
Taraire are very drought sensitive and trees will sacrifice their leaves in dry periods as a survival strategy. Over the last few years whole taraire canopies have turned silver as they have attempted to hold in their moisture and ride out drought. Once the weather becomes wetter these trees will usually sprout new leaves along their limbs to form a new healthy canopy. Being able to sprout new leaves directly out of their bark is an indication of their tropical heritage. Taraire have very thin bark, which is distinctive of tropical plants that do not need to withstand cold temperatures.
The name ‘taraire’ is likely to have been brought to Aotearoa by early Polynesian navigators. There are similar looking (but unrelated) plants called taraire that grow in parts of the Pacific, including Tahiti and the Cook Islands which would have been known to the early navigators who brought their waka to New Zealand. There is an interesting article about this that you can read here.
One final interesting fact about taraire is that they have a fascinating relationship with a naturally uncommon native orchid. The Danhatchia orchid is found growing exclusively in the leaf litter under taraire and nikau trees. These orchids have no leaves and do not photosynthesise, instead they parasitise fungi which deliver nutrients to their roots. These fungi break down nutrients from leaf litter and other dead plant material. The fungi are also connected to the taraire’s (and nikau’s) roots, which enables them to swap nutrients and water. When the Danhatchia orchids parasitise the fungi they are stealing from this relationship and so they are also benefiting from the taraire’s photosynthesis. Without their own chlorophyll Danhatchia orchids are a strange pinkish-brown colour and are extremely hard to spot in the leaf litter. So keep your eyes peeled next December when they are flowering and you might just spot one! https://www.nzpcn.org.nz/flora/species/danhatchia-australis/