This article was published in The Fringe, September 2015
First cousin to the widespread and much more common tawa, taraire is the more tropical one of the pair and extends north of Auckland and less commonly south to East Cape.
When walking in the Waitakere Ranges, even when your eyes are focussed on the ground as you stumble over tree roots, you can tell there is a taraire tree above you by the thick carpet of leaves which are tough and leathery and very slow to rot. Smothering almost all seedlings, the fallen leaves are a rich dark brown with many having a distinctive ripple rather like a well-cooked potato crisp.
Up to 30 metres tall, the trees have stiff leaves with prominent veins and they are deep green on top and often a glaucous blue colour underneath. Look closely and they have reddish hairs on the veins, particularly on the underneath surface. With the naked eye you can see on mature leaves what seem to be speckles of grey paint. In fact the spots are a lichen species called Strigula. One of the species is named Strigula delicata, but they are all exceedingly delicate yet complex structures. Alas, you will need a microscope to reveal their beauty.
There is something confusing about the family both taraire and tawa belong to - the Lauraceae, which includes the true laurel or bay tree, Laurus nobilis, but not the New Zealand laurel or pukatea. Even stranger are the close relatives of taraire and tawa within Lauraceae. The only other genus, native to New Zealand, within the Lauraceae family is Cassytha which has two species of parasitic vine found in Northland.
The Cassytha take adaptation to an extreme condition. Tawa and taraire are magnificent upright trees with a 1 metre diameter trunk and are totally 'self-reliant', whereas the Cassytha vines soon lose their trunk connection to the soil and rely totally upon the nearest shrub or tree which they parasitise. They do this as seedlings by twisting about, and immediately they locate a nearby plant, they rub against it and establish an 'haustoria' or specialised root which attaches to the a host plant and grows upon it to develop into what look like skeins of wiry orange twine draped over their host plant - normally manuka or kanuka.
The flowers of taraire are an inconspicuous 3 -5 mm diameter, in panicles perhaps 8 - 10cm long. They are perfect flowers containing both the male and female parts, and incongruously they produce perhaps the biggest seed in the New Zealand flora. The size of a date, 3 x 1.5cm, it is an ovoid drupe with one seed and a fleshy covering, with a waxy glaucous layer over the dark blue/purple fruit when ripe.
The thick fleshy covering is what attracts wood pigeon to swallow and disperse the seed. Frequently a lot of the flesh is left adhering to the seed when it is ejected as the pigeon sits upon a branch somewhat removed from the parent taraire. After the seed has lain dormant for a week or two the flesh has changed its state to a jelly like 'goo' which then provides a lubricant for the downward emerging root and the upward growing shoot, giving the young seedling the best start in life. Those seed unfortunate enough to fall directly to the forest floor underneath the parent are less likely to prosper even if all the flesh is intact. The thick tough layer of fallen taraire leaves proves inimical to the young seedling and it is remarkable how few taraire seedlings establish under the mature parent.
Easily grown in the home garden, taraire develops into a lovely structural tree with a sturdy trunk and clumps of foliage arrayed in a most attractive manner. It is many years before it evolves into the mature tree.
When you next travel along Greenlane towards the motorway, stop off to admire the row of magnificent planted specimens just inside the wall at the far end of Cornwall Park.