Being one of the great Podocarps, the Totara tree is a the lord of the forest and has its been converted since first settlement in New Zealand. Referred to as ‘a chiefly tree’ due to its impressive 30m hight, the great girth of its trunk and high quality timber. The word Totara is derived from the name of the porcupine fish in Polynesia. This is unquestionable from the thousands of small but spiky leaves that cover the tree.
Totara has fantastic properties as a timber and as such, has been always been highly prized. It’s most important qualities are a hard and very durable timber that is easy to work with making it ideal for carving waka. Placing a cut down the trunk of a young tree sets it up perfectly to be harvested in later generations to the be carved into the largest waka, carrying up to 100 warriors. As such, it is forever intertwined in its critical role in battles and its connection to the war god Tumatauenga.
The bark will come off in large sheets, which made it every useful for thatching roofs, and the berries are among some of the tastiest in the forest.
The durability of Totara made it the preferred timber primarily for ground contact but also featuring in general construction throughout human settlement. As such it was wildly used for house piling, fence posts, wharf pilings and railway sleepers.
Totarol: A medical compound
There is a growing body of research into the antimicrobial properties, specifically a compound aptly named Totarol. After noting the trees exceptional resistance to decay they have discovered this totarol in the heartwood off the tree. So far it has shown to be effective against a range of different bacteria, as well as nematodes, insect larvae, crustaceous and protozoans.
Most notably, it has shown to be effective against The bacteria that causes tuberculous which killed 1.6m people in 2021, and the bacteria currently infects 1.8 billion worldwide. It also in preliminary testing against Methicillin resistant staphylococcus!
Totarol also has potential as a food additive, and currently has most of its us in cosmetics for anti aging cream, dental plaque and acne.
You will find Totara dotted around the New Zealand farming landscape. Aside from its wonderful qualities, the attractiveness, long life, durability and how easily the bird population can spread the seed spread far and wide. Probably the largest factor, is that livestock generally do not like eating them, most likely due to the spiky leaves. This makes them great shelter from the sun for the stock to gather around.
Totara naturally grows throughout the North Island and the North-Eastern parts of the South Island in lowland areas below 600m. It is commonly found in the lowlands with fertile, well draining soil.
Like most trees, they are frost tender at a young age, so recommend planting out older tress if possible, especially in the South Island. Once established they are generally pretty hardy.