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



Where beech forest is present and when temperatures become too cold for tree growth as the altitude increases, there is often an abrupt change from the uppermost trees to a vegetation of alpine herbs and/or shrubs.

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The highest treelines are those where mountain beech is present. In the central North Island at 39°S the mountain beech treelines range from about 1350 to 1500 m; in the north-eastern South Island at 42°S, 1300 to about 1550 m; and in the southern South Island at 45°S from 950 to 1250 m.

Compared with treelines at comparable latitudes on a continent, those in New Zealand are unusually low.95,96 For example, at 39°N in the Rocky Mountains of North America, the treeline can be as high as 3630 m, This apparent anomaly seems to relate to the difference in summer temperatures between continents and islands at comparable latitudes. Land heats up much more in summer than the sea, so a continent will attain higher temperatures at given latitudes and altitudes than a narrow island surrounded by the relatively cooler sea. Consequently vegetation zone boundaries, including the treeline, are higher on continents than on islands. It is estimated that a mean warmest month temperature of 10°C determines the upper limit of tree growth and this seems to hold as true for the relatively low beech treelines in New Zealand as for the higher continental treelines.

On this basis it might be expected that mountains furthest from the sea in New Zealand with more 'continental' climates would have higher treelines. This proves to be the case. The highest treelines in New Zealand are on Mt Ruapehu in the central North Island (ca. 1500 m) and on the mountains at the centre of the northern South Island (ca. 1550 m). Inverted treelines occur where there are flat valley floors not far below the normal treeline. In frosty weather the coldest air sinks to the valley floor, which as a result experiences much lower temperatures than the valley sides, despite their higher altitude. In these circumstances the valley floor is occupied by an open vegetation of an alpine/subalpine character, while the slopes support forest.