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Forest Vines to Snow Tussocks: The Story of New Zealand Plants



Kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) is a distinctive undershrub with heartshaped leaves and jointed stems. Kawakawa is sometimes called 'native pepper tree' because of its hot tasting leaves, and it is in fact related to the true pepper plant of Indonesia. It is also related to the similarly named kava plant of Fiji. Horopito (Pseudowintera axillaris) with its dark green shiny leaves has also been termed 'pepper tree' for the same reason, but it is not in fact related to kawakawa. It belongs to the Winteraceae, a family often considered to be the most primitive of the flowering plants.

Other common shrubs are the thin-leaved hangehange (Geniostoma rupestre), kanono (Coprosma grandifolia) and pate (Schefflera digkata) with its large palmately compound leaves. The tree fern, wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa), may also be common. It is notable for spreading by horizontal stems or rhizomes to form groves.

In better lit places five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) may occur. Its leaves are of similar form to those of pate but they have a thicker texture and are more coarsely toothed at the margins. Accompanying species may be the two common larger-leaved coprosmas both known as karamu: C. robusta and C. lucida, the bubbly-leaved ramarama (Lophomyrtus bullata), wharangi (Melicope ternata), the 'tree daisies' heketara (Olearia rani) and the familiar large-leaved rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda).

Among the undershrubs which occur at higher altitudes in the north page 104are mountain horopito (Pseudowintera colorata), often with an extremely attractive red or yellow leaf colouration; mountain five-finger (Pseudopanax colensoi)P. simplex, the tree fern Cyathea smithii and Coprosma foetidissima.

The coprosma is sometimes known as 'stinkwood' because the crushed leaves smell like rotten cabbage. Indeed the name of the genus is based on this species, 'copros' being latin for dung. Insult is added to injury with the species name, so that Coprosma foetidissima could be translated as 'stinking dung plant'. In fact very few of the many species of Coprosma have an unpleasant smell.

Alseuosmia pusilla is a small shrub which is often overlooked since it frequently grows with mountain horopito and looks very much like it. In the absence of flowers or berries the easiest way to tell them apart is to turn over the leaves — those of horopito are white, those of Alseuosmia pale green. It has been suggested that, as the peppery leaves of horopito are unpalatable to deer they may also have been unpalatable to moas.62 In that case moas, like many bush lovers today, may have passed Alseuosmia pusilla by. The genus Alseuosmia seems to specialise in such mimicry. I have seen a form of this genus in a forest near Kaitaia with round bullate (bubbly) leaves, and I took it at first to be the familiar ramarama (Lophomyrtus bullata).