This article was published in The Fringe May 2014
Mapou - also sometimes called matipo or red kohuhu.
Among the most common shrubs naturalising in our gardens are the seedlings of Myrsine australis. When quite small the leaves are toothed and their yellow-green colour contrasts with the red stems. As they mature the leaves become undulate and cease being toothed, often developing prominent reddish blotches, and the leaves always have an outer ring of tiny orange oil glands which are only visible when held up to the light.
Mapou grows into a 6m tall tree with a trunk diameter of half a metre. The timber is not noted for structural qualities but it is a hard, red-grained wood, used by Maori for digging tools and weapon handles, indicating its toughness and durability.
None of the above description gives the picture of an attractive and instantly recognisable tree. Indeed most people think mapou is a red-stemmed Pittosporum. It is both commendable and interesting that most of us can learn and say Pittosporum, but Myrsine seems way too hard to get our collective minds around. There are of course many popular Pittosporum grown in gardens, whereas of the 11 members in the Myrsine family, several have only recently been described as new species. In fact, apart from an inconspicuous alpine species, Myrsine nummularia, mainland New Zealand had only three species noted in most books - the large-leaved Myrsine salicina, the small-leaved weeping form, Myrsine divaricata, and the intermediate, but most common, Myrsine australis. Now we recognise an additional seven forms worthy of being designated as species, of which five are confined to off-shore islands.
The spread of mapou is hastened by the fact that its numerous, small purple fruit are highly palatable to birds, in particular small birds, the urban sort of bird, both native and exotic, that you see hopping across your lawn. Scare one away and it will instinctively deposit a small pile of purple guano including numerous small mapou seed.
This method of seed dispersal is a time honoured tradition, with Myrsine seeds and leaves being a significant part of a moa’s diet. There is not much recorded about the diet of many species of moa, but the gizzards of Dinornis giganteus from Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury were analysed and showed the birds grazed on a wide range of plants, eating fruit, leaves and twigs. Myrsine divaricata was a prominent portion of the diet, despite the minute leaves and the twiggy habit that makes picking seed a difficult task. Elsewhere Myrsine australis would have commonly been part of a moa diet.
So enjoy those errant seedlings that pop up in the wrong places and imagine a moa making deposits at the bottom of the garden.