With their deep green foliage and regal grey trunks, puriri are indeed princes among Northland’s trees.
Anave of silver-grey pillars, gnarled and imposing, rises heavenward. Ferns and perching grasses festoon the massive lower branches, while stout roots clasping the trunk reveal the presence of other, even larger tenants higher in the canopy. Bright rosellas flit noisily through the dappled greens and become lost in the forest depths.
They call this place Cathedral Grove, where the puriri cast deep shadows, and where the serenity is deeper still. The trees here are a remnant of the ancient forest that once covered the fertile volcanic slopes of Auckland. It is surprisingly spacious as little survives in the darkness cast by the puriri’s dense leaf cover. Within the arches of this forest the breeze is tamed to a mere whisper and scented with the mossy incense of decaying vegetation. Our muffled footsteps on the thick detritus layer fall like evensong in this chapel of nature.
as little survives in the darkness cast by the puriri’s dense leaf cover. Within the arches of this forest the breeze is tamed to a mere whisper and scented with the mossy incense of decaying vegetation. Our muffled footsteps on the thick detritus layer fall like evensong in this chapel of nature.
Land clearance and logging have eliminated all but a few of the old puriri groves. Yet puriri is not an uncommon tree in the upper half of the North Island. Many city parks, streets and schools are graced by one or more of the stately giants. Out in the paddocks a few oldtimers avoided the logger’s axe, generally because they were too twisted to split into usable posts.
The easiest way to recognise puriri is to look for the flowers scattered on the ground. These are not small, green and inconspicuous like many New Zealand plants, but bell-shaped, up to 3cm long and ranging from red-brown through crimson to pale pink. Occasionally, a white-flowered specimen can be discovered.
Puriri bear flowers and fruit most of the year, but are most prolific with their floral displays from late autumn to early spring. The cherry-like fruits are fairly tasteless, but bear just a hint of bitter sweetness that leaves a dried shoe-leather feel in your mouth.
The puriri is a handsome tree, up to 20m in height, with a rounded canopy of dark green glossy leaves atop an often irregular massive light grey or beige trunk. The leaves consist of three or five shiny, leathery leaflets, borne on a long stalk. Each leaflet is slightly darker on top, and has pores called domatia on the lower surface, where the midvein and lateral veins meet. Domatia are little pouches with a smooth hairless rim which are found in a number of New Zealand natives, including coprosma, hebe and beech. It is not known what function they perform.
Botanically speaking, the tree is Vitex lucens, a member of the Verbenaceae family, which also includes verbena, a common garden leaflets, borne on a long stalk. Each leaflet is slightly darker on top, and has pores called domatia on the lower surface, where the midvein and lateral veins meet. Domatia are little pouches with a smooth hairless rim which are found in a number of New Zealand natives, including coprosma, hebe and beech. It is not known what function they perform.
Botanically speaking, the tree is Vitex lucens, a member of the Verbenaceae family, which also includes verbena, a common garden were used to split the logs of other species, and puriri was also used in the construction of hinaki (eel traps) because it was one of the few timbers that would sink.
Puriri was a logical choice for palisade posts, provided that a good local supply was available, for the wood was far too heavy to lug great distances. Northland historian Florence Keene described the palisades of Ohaeawai pa as being “puriri trunks between forty and fifty inches in circumference, and these were driven nearly six feet into the ground while over ten feet stood above it. . . As an added precaution, curtains of green flax leaves were hung round the base to deflect the bullets from their path.”
Legend has it that buckshot used to ricochet off these palisades rather than lodge in the wood.
Most native plants have found their way into Maori herbal and medicinal lore, and puriri is no exception. Roy Ututonga, of Waitangi, told me that an infusion of the berries was taken as a laxative, and that the water from the boiled leaves was used to treat cuts and sores. Other authorities describe puriri as useful for curing ulcers, especially under the ear, for easing sore throats and also for bathing sprains and sore backs.
According to Roy Ututonga, the puriri tree is sought out by dieting kereru (native wood pigeons). “When he gets too fat eating taraire and karaka, and can hardly fly any more, he eats puriri berries to lose weight!”
Where available, puriri have often been used by Maori to entomb the remains of the dead. After the tangi of a chief or other person of high mana the body was left to decompose for a year or more in either a cave or a sacred grove—commonly puriri, in the upper half of the North Island.
Then followed the hahunga, the ritual scraping and laying to rest of the bones—a ceremony which was much more tapu and important than the tangi. Puriri with hollows or big forks were favoured options for secreting the bones.
Puriri groves are still used as a burial place, and puriri find other uses during the mourning process:
the leaves are used as a coronet, or carried in the hand during a tangi, and the body is washed with the juices from the leaves to help preserve it.
Such a close association with death rites has made puriri tapu. Douglas Bedggood, a crafts and engineering teacher in Paihia, told of one young Maori boy who refused to work with a block of puriri wood, saying, “Eh, that could be my great-grandfather!”
Many of the traditionally sacred puriri trees and groves remain untouched, and every now and then somebody stumbles across a disturbing find. One old forester told this story: “I love honey, you see, and I used to raid any beehives that I could find. Even as a young lad I was always climbing into trees and scooping out the honey; didn’t worry about getting stung. Often the hives were in hollow puriri. One just down the road here had four hives in it! Anyway, I was climbing this tree, after some honey, when I accidentally knocked this flax kit out of a fork. It fell to the ground, and out rolled three skulls. I put the skulls back up in the fork, but the kit had totally fallen apart and I couldn’t wrap them up again.
“Then there was the tapu tree near Haruru Falls. It used to roar and rustle and carry on. And the old bushmen, when they had to pass that way at night, they used to ride past cracking the whip so that they couldn’t hear it roaring.”
Pakeha were making use of puriri as a building timber as early as the 1830s. When the Church Missionary Society established New Zealand’s first inland mission station at Waimate North, the missionaries and their families were initially housed in whare made of puriri planks.
George Clarke, one of the original lay missionaries, wrote to his parents in 1831 saying, “Our dwellings are merely temporary Buildings made of a Wood Called By The Natives Purire. It Resembles in its grain the Walnut tree but is I think as durable as the Oak.”
A notable puriri relic is to be found in the remains of the Paremata flour mill, built in the early 1850s on the road between the Waimate Mission and Kerikeri by one John Bedggood.
The cogs of the grinding mechanism have puriri teeth, all hewn to precise mechanically approved angles without the aid of modern tools.
The mill had a short working life—a decade at the most—before its wheels stopped grinding in the early 1860s. Difficulties with soil fertility and weeds, coupled with the burgeoning kauri gum trade (which viewed the soil more as a repository for gum than as a growing medium for crops) put an end to wheat-growing in the north.
It didn’t take the early settlers long to realise that land on which puriri grew was very fertile, with the result that puriri areas were sought after as prime farming and horticultural sites. It was also very convenient to have the best fence post material in the colony growing on your property.
Due to the timber’s rot and borer-resistant properties there are still many puriri fence posts in use today, 60 to 100 years on. New Zealand industry even had to invent a special puriri staple to attach the fencing wire to this exceptionally hard wood. There was a saying that went, “as tough as a puriri post.”
Puriri timber had an important role in the young colony, and fulfilled all those tasks now performed by tanalised pine. The building trade used,it as framing, and puriri foundation blocks were used till about the mid-1920s. Many houses of this vintage are still standing today, their puriri piles giving faithful service after half a century.
Puriri was brought south from places such as Langs Beach, on the east coast, in barges to Auckland (puriri being too heavy to float), along with rafts of kauri. Both were destined for the Auckland building trade, but puriri was also used for tram and railway sleepers and as piles for wharves and bridges. In order to lower puriri bridge piles into place, workers had to dig extra-large stepped holes and jump the pile down the steps; it was impossible to lower the dead weight of puriri straight down.
Right into the mid-1960s puriri was the preferred material for bridge planking. It was also made into machine bed plates and even engine bearings. There are still water pumps in Northland which are running on puriri bearings.
Puriri is a great firewood, and burns with an intense heat, as Tess Jobbit, owner of Grove Cottage in Waimate North, can testify. After two years of burning mainly puriri, the grating of her potbelly stove had welded itself to the body, and had to be cut free with a blow torch.
Puriri has been extensively used as wood veneer on cabinets and other furniture, where its fine rippled grain adds interest to the piece. [See “Scuffed &Son” in New Zealand Geographic, Issue 6]. It was often sold as “New Zealand oak.”
At the present time it is very difficult to obtain puriri at all, and then generally only north of Auckland. Although the timber is still prized by furniture makers and woodturners, it seems there is no grain without pain: craftsmen complain that the dry wood is like “turning a block of concrete . . . you continually have to sharpen your tools.”
While the holes made by puriri moth larvae can be a problem, they can also add to the total design.
One of the mysteries of puriri is that occasionally sawlogs are found to be without any larval holes, whereas most of the trees seem riddled. Perhaps there are puriri moth-resistant trees, but no one knows for sure.
Another enigma is the supposed difference between light puriri and black puriri. The dark wood is apparently much stronger and denser. According to John Cookson, maintenance curator of the Treaty House at Waitangi, “black puriri are about one in a million trees, and one old Maori bushman told me that you can find it growing only on the edge of swamps or streams.”
Puriri sawdust has an intense yellow colour which, as many a handyman has found to his cost, leaves stains on hands and concrete.
For many people, one of the attractions of the puriri is its determined stubbornness to survive. I have seen stumps in Waimate North, possibly cut down around the early 1900s, which are sprouting today, despite the fact that most of the wood has rotted away, and years of stock grazing have prevented any previous attempts at regrowth.
One tree, probably uprooted through natural causes, had had the usable middle section of the trunk removed by an enterprising person. This did not deter the tree from producing new shoots (which are now trees with a diameter of 30cm) at both the roots and the, now separated, crown of the tree.
Puriri are very good at layering (branches producing new roots and shoots when they touch the ground).One tree in the Waitakere Ranges runs
along 20 metres of forest floor. You can follow its progression, from the biggest fallen trunk, over a metre in diameter, to the latest victim, fallen within the last two years. There are about four different sizes of puriri tree, all still connected by living horizontal trunks of various girths.
Another example, in Waimate North, has covered more than a third of an acre in this fashion and is reaching out still further. The story is told of a farmer who cut a puriri, quartered it and used the posts to build a hay barn. Three of the posts sprouted. Puriri also root graft. A seemingly dead stump can be kept alive by surrounding trees if the roots or some part of the stump is in contact with a living specimen. Once stock is kept out, these stumps will sprout again.
It is very hard to determine the age of puriri trees by taking core samples and counting rings, partly due to the phenomena just mentioned, and
partly because trees that have remained upright for their entire lifespan tend to be hollow (witness the number of wild bee hives to be found in puriri).
Puriri seem to be very slow growing once past their juvenile spurt—the dense wood testifies to that—and counting rings is not an easy task. It is
possible that some puriri are older than the current kauri record-holders (1500-2000 years) as puriri often withstand forest fires, whereas kauri and most other natives die.
Even so, all is not well with the puriri. Alby Hall, an accomplished woodturner from Northland, explains. “I moved here from Australia
six years ago and fell in love with the puriri tree. I enjoy using the high quality hard wood, and always use dead wood, of which there is plenty to be found. I have noticed over the past few years that my favourite
puriri trees have deteriorated badly, and I am concerned at the lack of seedlings in the bush. In most areas there just aren’t any.”
Possums are at least part of the problem. They eat the young shoots,flowers and berries, and the dense thickets of epiphytic plants on the larger branches provide excellent den sites—a perfect bed-and-breakfast arrangement.
Ecologist Stephen King, of totaraclimbing fame, believes that one of the biggest threats to trees like the puriri is the monkey apple tree. “Kereru are eating monkey apple seeds and spreading this species far and wide across our native forests. Monkey apple germinates under similar conditions to puriri, but sprouts much more quickly and will rapidly outgrow it. I foresee a time when you will look out across the forest canopy and see monkey apple where puriri should be.”
To counteract the decline, concerned groups in Northland are replanting specified areas with puriri and other natives. As well as recreating a forest habitat, this action will