This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, November 2009
Whenever I am asked the name of the native tree that resembles a "Dr Seuss tree", I know from experience the person is referring to a Dracophyllum. I recently tried to find a picture of such a plant in one of Dr. Seuss's books. I cannot find anything similar to a Dracophyllum in Cat in the Hat; One Fish, Two Fish or Fox in Socks. The most famous of Dr Seuss's trees are probably the truffula trees that the Lorax tried to save from destruction, but they don't look quite right.
There are about 35 species of Dracophyllum in NZ.
They range from flat almost grass-like plants, through prostrate and sprawling shrubs to significant trees up to 15m tall. In the Waitakere ranges there are 2 species, the larger-leaf Dracophyllum latifolium or neinei, and the wispy Dracophyllum sinclairii or inanga. They both grow near kauri groves, and Dracophyllum sinclairii also inhabits the barren soils of gumland communities. They certainly catch the imagination and are well worth the effort to grow.
Like the Lorax I want to 'speak for the trees'. There is a significant population of Dracophyllum sinclairii on the hillsides of Waikumete Cemetery protecting a host of orchids, insectiferous sundews and rare ferns. They need our protection because Waitakere City's plans to expand the cemetery will very likely lead to the destruction of their habitiat.
The back cover design for the seventh edition (1964) of Laing & Blackwell's book "Plants of New Zealand" (first written in 1906), shows the forms of two distinct Dracophyllum. It is easy to see why some members of this species are sometimes called "grass tree".