This article was published in The Fringe, November 2016
Pigeon love this tree. The New Zealand wood-pigeon, that is, or kereru or kukupa (Hemiphaga novaezelandiae). Undoubtedly the kereru nest high up in the 25-30m tall trees, but it is the relatively large, red, succulent, juicy fruit, tasting of turpentine, that really attract the bird. Gorging themselves on the fruit, the woodpigeons become heavy and flight is laborious.
Miro is both a gymnosperm and a podocarp, and most New Zealand podocarps are dioecious with male and female cones on separate trees. Podocarps are a family of conifers which are better known as pines. Pines of course have needles for leaves, and cones which produce seeds. The word podocarp means ‘seed on a foot’ with totara, rimu, and kahikatea being the best native examples.
Miro is most closely related to matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia) and they are distinguished from other podocarps by both their needles and their cones. Female miro and matai both have hard wooden shells surrounding the single seed, and just like a plum, it is all encased in the fleshy red fruit, whereas other NZ podocarps have seed encased in a crisp endocarp or husk, and it all is sitting on a fleshy base or foot. In both kinds of podocarps the fruit are in fact modified cones with the cone ‘scales’ becoming fleshy and attracting birds which eat the fruit and disperse the seed, unlike most conifers which have winged seed that are wind dispersed. The male miro has single, axillary small 1cm cones or strobili which grow near the tips of the foliage and in a good year can turn the tree a dusty brown colour.
Miro foliage has a dark green, soft, feathery look. The individual leaves, or needles, are small at 2.5cm long and barely 3mm wide. They are arranged in a manner that is described as “distichous” which means arranged alternately in two opposite vertical rows, or two rows on opposite sides of the axis, quite unlike the needles of pines and other conifers. It is distinguished from matai by the needle being sickle shaped, green underneath and gradually narrow to a point. Matai needles are straighter, glaucous underneath and rounded with a sharp point at the very tip. The scientific genus name for miro and matai is Prumnopitys which refers to the species having a resin duct behind the midrib and is Latin for ‘prymnos’ meaning ‘behind’ and ‘pitys’ or ‘pine’. ‘Ferruginea’ means ‘iron coloured’ although you have to dry the foliage and store it in a herbarium to see the distinctive iron colour develop.
The bark of miro is also distinctive with it flaking and leaving clear irregular blotches, whereas matai is similar but has regular sized blotches looking as if a hammer has been used to attack the bark.
Endemic and found throughout New Zealand, miro is a common tree in most forests up to 1,000 metres above sea level where it typically grows in association with rimu. Slow growing and generally preferring rich moist soils, miro will need your help to establish well in your garden. Staking, fertilising, pruning and watering in summer will all be beneficial. But don’t hesitate, the kereru will thank you for growing a miro by visiting regularly.