7 Incredible Trees Native to New Zealand

Written by Rebecca Mathews
Published: January 23, 2023
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Famous for kiwi birds, Lord of the Rings movie scenery, and top-class rugby, New Zealand is a remarkable place, but did you know it’s also home to some pretty special flora? Incredible trees native to New Zealand range from legumes to beeches and palms.

Let’s dive in and learn about some of the most interesting trees there.

Where Is New Zealand?

New Zealand consists of two main islands separated by the Cook Strait plus over 700 smaller islands. Its capital is Wellington and 1.5 million people live there.

New Zealand is situated in the Pacific Ocean with Australia over 1,600 kilometers to its west. It was formed by volcanic forces over 23 million years ago and volcanoes are still active there today. Alongside volcanoes, New Zealand’s landscape is made up of snowy mountain peaks, rocky shorelines, and inland pastures.

New Zealand is home to more than 1.5 million people — and some amazing tree species.

©ian woolcock/Shutterstock.com

It was one of the final landmasses to witness the arrival of humans. Between 1250 and 1300 Polynesians settled there and began to clear the forests. It’s estimated 80% of New Zealand was forested before humans arrived, and now only 23% of it remains.

However, New Zealand is still home to many wonderful trees, and because its climate is so varied (very wet on the west coast, semi-arid in the central regions, and subtropical in the north), its native species are wonderfully different.

Definition of a Tree?

A tree is a plant with an elongated trunk and branches. There’s no genus or family group of trees in the plant kingdom, trees can belong to any genus.

Here are 7 incredible trees (of different geni!) that are native to New Zealand.

1. Cordyline australis

Better known as the cabbage tree, and one of the most recognizable trees in New Zealand, is the Cordyline australis.

It’s an evergreen perennial tree with a rough, cork-like slender trunk that reaches up to 65 feet (20 meters). The wood is so fire resistant that settlers used it to make chimneys.

Cabbage tree leaves are long, green, sharp, and capable of reaching three feet (a meter) in length. They’re used to weave baskets, fences, and kindling for fires (in contrast to their fireproof trunks).

Alongside its useful timber and foliage, the cabbage tree has pollinator-attracting white-scented flowers that develop into pale blue-white berries that support birds.

This incredible New Zealand native prefers wet areas like swamps and riversides and it can quickly colonize open sites, stabilizing its soil and preventing erosion. The cabbage tree is cultivated across the world, and known as the Torquay palm in Britain.

Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)

Cabbage palm (

Cordyline australis

) trees are native to New Zealand.

©Thomas Notaro/Shutterstock.com

2. Fuscospora cliffortioides

There are five beech species native to New Zealand:

  • Hard beech 
  • Black beech
  • Red beech
  • Silver beech 
  • Mountain beech 

Mountain beech prefers mountains, hence its name, and less fertile soil than New Zealand’s other beech species.

It’s the smallest beech at 40-50 feet (12-15 meters) tall with a trunk diameter of 2.5 feet (75 centimetres). It grows from 2,300 feet (700 meters) above sea level until no more soil is left. At high altitude, it forms a boundary line indicating there’s no more room to spread upwards. At this point, it only grows to a few feet tall and is called a goblin forest!

If there’s heavy snowfall, mountain beech will grow horizontally until the snow melts and it can return to its vertical self.

Mountain beech is endemic to New Zealand, but not threatened because it grows at altitude and this mountainous land is not usually cleared for farming.

3. Brachyglottis huntii

This incredible New Zealand tree is also called the Chatham Island Christmas tree or Rautini in Maori.

It’s a 26 feet (eight meter) tall daisy tree with downy green leaves that give it a beautiful silver hue. In summer, bright yellow flowers cover the branches in a cheerful coat.

Rautini is endemic to Chatham Island and Pitt island where it grows near streams, ridge crests, peat soils, forests, and shrubland.

It’s quick to colonize disturbed ground and capable of rapid growth, but young plants are easily destroyed by livestock who enjoy its water-rich leaves. Possums raid the flowers and damage their structure too.

It was once widespread, but it is under threat now due to habitat erosion.

4. Agathis australis

Agathis australis is the kauri tree and one of the world’s largest trees. It’s native to New Zealand and was common when settlers first arrived.

Kauri trees have straight trunks that can reach 164 feet (50 meters) tall. Adult trees shed their lower branches, so the trunk is clean and straight. This creates an ecosystem under their care. Other plants like Kirk’s pine and towai grow in the understorey and create gumland habitats.

In 1987 the kauri forests were placed under the Department for Conservation’s protection and the Waipoua sanctuary was created. In this sanctuary, the largest kauri tree thrives. It’s called Tane Mahuta, and is 1,500 years old! The trunk is 167 feet (51.5 meter) tall with a 42 feet (13.7 meter) girth.

The sanctuary is not only home to native New Zealand trees, but also kiwi and kokako birds, plus the very handsome carnivorous kauri snail!

5. Sophora microphylla 

Sophora microphylla is a species of kowhai tree found on South and North islands. It’s a small woody legume tree that reaches 26 feet (eight meters) tall, with smooth bark and small shiny green leaves.

Kowhai grow in forests, coastal cliffs, and scrubland, so they are tough and adaptable.

It’s a semi-evergreen that sheds its leaves after flowering and puts all of its energy back into leaf production when the blooms are spent.

Kowhai is the unofficial national flower of New Zealand and you can see why. The flowers are stunning bright yellow and their image is often used on stamps and coins to indicate New Zealand’s culture without saying a word.

Even though it’s the unofficial national flower, all parts of the kowhai tree are toxic to humans, but fortunately not for birds and insects that flock to its pollen and nectar resources throughout the July to November flowering season. The endemic tui bird is a big fan of kowhai nectar!

6. Pseudopanax crassifolius

Pseudopanax crassifolius is known as lancewood and it’s an interesting small tree with ever-changing foliage as it matures. In the past, early botanists thought young lancewoods and adult lancewoods were different species!

It’s an evergreen tree that has a straight, skinny trunk with a crown of clustered thin leaves on top when it’s young.

Mature trees develop branches after 15-20 years as a juvenile and grow to 49 feet tall (15 meters). They develop a rounded crown with leaves half the size of their juvenile ones. It’s no wonder the botanists got mixed up!

There are three lancewood species, and one is called the fierce lancewood because it has shark-tooth serrations along its leaf margins. All species were used by the Maori to spear birds and fish, and juvenile lancewood’s whippy leaf ribs made excellent shoelaces for early settlers.

Lancewood grows in mountains or lowland forests and enjoys disturbed soil. It’s a tree that environmentalists like to use to regenerate bushland.

7. Rhopalostylis sapida

This tropical tree is New Zealand’s only native palm and the southernmost member of the palm tree family. Maoris call it the Nikau palm.

Nikau palms reach 32-49 feet (10-15 meters) with 10 feet (three meter) long fronds atop their slender gray-brown trunks, and they take 200 years to get there!

Its flowers are spectacular purple clusters that attract many pollinators including bees and tui birds. Because its flowers bloom all year round, it’s an invaluable source of nectar for the ecosystem. Once the flowers ripen to red berries they continue to feed birds and mammals too.  

This New Zealand native grows in lowland forests or coastal areas, where the weather is warmer, on both North and South islands. It also appears on Chatham Island too, but some experts think it might be a different species.

The Maoris used Nikau palm leaves to thatch houses, make baskets, mats, and protective pants for jungle exploration. They even turned its hard berries into bright necklaces and ate young flower clusters, so it’s a real shame land conversion now threatens this historically rich native palm.

Up Next

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joppi/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Rebecca is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on plants and geography. Rebecca has been writing and researching the environment for over 10 years and holds a Master’s Degree from Reading University in Archaeology, which she earned in 2005. A resident of England’s south coast, Rebecca enjoys rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to support the stray cat population.

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