The Gymnosperm Database


Original illustration (Kirk 1889).


Tree ca. 100 cm diameter in Puketi Forest [C.J. Earle, 2003.03].


Bark on a tree ca. 40 cm diameter in Tongariro National Park [C.J. Earle, 2003.03].


Foliage of an adult plant on Hauhungatahi, Tongariro National Park; longest leaves are 2 cm long [C.J. Earle, 2003.03].


Foliage of a juvenile plant in Puketi Forest; longest leaves are 7 cm long [C.J. Earle, 2003.03].


Seeds (Webb and Simpson 2001).


Distribution map (Metcalf 2002).


Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional

Conservation status 2010: protocol 2.3, needs updating

Podocarpus cunninghamii

Colenso 1884

Podocarpus hallii

Kirk 1889

Common names

Montane totara (Salmon 1996), thin-bark totara, Hall's totara (Metcalf 2002). See also the totara, P. totara.

Taxonomic notes

Syn: Nageia hallii (Kirk) Kuntze 1891, Podocarpus totara var. hallii (Kirk) Pilg. 1903 (Farjon 1998).

This is the only place in the Database where I grant two different names to the same species. This is easily done, as both Colenso and Kirk were unquestionably talking about the same plant. There is, however, a debate about which is the "right" author. The debate hinges on the question of whether a narrative account of the species written by William Colenso in 1884 should be taken as a description of the species. Colenso wrote "I should not omit to mention, that on my way down the mountain (Ruahine Range) from the summit, I discovered a plant which I believed to be a new species of Podocarpus and therefore named it P. Cunninghamii (after my dear old friend and early Botanist in N.Z. Allan Cunningham). Its leaves and male amentae with the squamulae at their bases were very much larger than those of P. totara and the amentae were also on long peduncles; its bark, too, was semi-papery, more like that of some large specimens of Fuchsia excorticata, and not at all resembling the bark of P. totara." (Colenso, In Memoriam 1884, Paper II, 58, quoted by Allan [1961]). This 'description' is sketchy, particularly since Colenso described many species and generally observed contemporary conventions in doing so; his failure to formally publish the description of this species suggests that his 1884 comments were not intended as the published description of a new species. Nonetheless, even less detailed descriptions by other authors have been taken as valid descriptions of new species, so is Colenso's account valid even if that was not his intent? The rules of botanical nomenclature do not consider an author's intent. Conversely, Kirk's 1889 publication provides a well illustrated and detailed account that remains the best brief description of the species. In my opinion, a strict interpretation of the rules of botanical nomenclature would require that Colenso's description be accepted, but at the same time, in conversation I call this species Podocarpus hallii and so it is known throughout the New Zealand literature; I doubt if that situation will ever change.


Tree to 20 m tall and 125 cm dbh. Bark thin, papery. Branchlets slender, somewhat drooping on juvenile trees. Leaves brown-green; juvenile foliage 3-7 cm long by 3-5 mm wide, linear-lanceolate; adult foliage smaller, 1.5-3 cm long by 3-4 mm wide, narrow-linear to linear-lanceolate, acute to acuminate, coriaceous, pungent, the midvein usually evident. Pollen cones are 1-2.5 cm long, solitary or up to 5 on a common peduncle, with 4 scales, apiculus obtuse; falling soon after pollen is shed. Ovules solitary or paired; receptacles usually red, swollen and succulent. Seed green, 3-5 mm long, narrow-ovoid, pointed, nutlike (Allan 1961, Metcalf 2002, pers. obs. 2003).

Metcalf (2002) asserts that it is most easily distinguished from P. totara, with which it often grows, by its thin and rather papery bark as opposed to the tough, thick and fibrous bark of P. totara. Matsui et al. (2004) generally agree with that, but present evidence of exceptions; as usual, a confident identification is based on a variety of characters.

Distribution and Ecology

New Zealand: N Island, S Island and Stewart Island (Farjon 1998). Based on data from 1456 collection localities, its climate preferences include a mean annual temperature of 9.2°C, with an average minimum in the coldest month of -0.8°C, and a mean annual precipitation of 2539 mm (Biffin et al. 2011, Table S5). Hardy to Zone 8 (cold hardiness limit between -12.1°C and -6.7°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

Both this and P. totara are tall, slow-growing forest trees that often grow together in lowland forests from sea level to 600 m, with P. totara giving way to P. hallii above 480 m (Salmon 1996). I have seen it growing in what appear to be two distinct ecological niches in the North Island. The first role is that of montane totara, where it grows as a forest dominant on well drained soils at elevations above 480 m. The second role is that of a codominant tree tolerant of wet soils, in which capacity it grows on very wet substrates at low elevations throughout much of Northland. Examples include trees growing on wet floodplain soils in Waipoua and Trounson Kauri Forests, and trees growing very near mangroves around Auckland.

Big tree

A tree 30 m tall and 265 cm dbh, the 'Motu totara,' is reported from Dean Forest, Southland (Burstall and Sale 1984).


Smale and Smale (2003), studying forest dynamics and tree growth rates, report ages of up to 496 years for trees growing in native forest remnants at Waihaha in the central North Island. Ages in this study were determined by simple ring-counts of increment cores taken at breast height.


This species has been used in at least one climate change study (Burrows and Greenland 1979), and was probably the first New Zealand species to see any dendrochronological use, in an investigation of Maori archeology (Batley 1956).


The bark "was formerly used by southern Maori to encase the kelp bags used for storing muttonbirds. These containers are known as pohatiti" (Metcalf 2002).


In Tongariro National Park it grows on the track up Hauhungatahi, a subsidiary cone west of Mount Ruapehu. To reach this stand, drive 5.5 km south from the highway junction in National Park to the tiny hamlet of Erua and park near the railroad tracks. Follow the tracks about 250 m south to where a small, weathered sign says 'Track' and follow it. The track heads almost continuously uphill, starting in a flax thicket and then, in the forest, passing progressively through elevation zones dominated by rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia), montane totara (Podocarpus hallii), kaikawaka (Libocedrus bidwillii), yellow pine (Halocarpus biformis), mountain toatoa (Phyllocladus alpinus), bog pine (Halocarpus bidwillii) and pygmy pine (Lepidothamnus laxifolius). This species can also be seen growing along an elevational sequence along the Tongariro Crossing, above the Ketetahi trailhead. As noted above, it also grows in very wet soils in Northland; good examples can be seen in Trounson Kauri Forest, along the ridge walk in Puketi Forest, and along the walk to Te Matua Ngahere (the biggest kauri) in Waipoua Forest.



Batley, R.A.L. 1956. Some practical aspects of dendrochronology in New Zealand. Journal of the Polynesian Society 65(3): 232-244 (as Pinus hallii).

See also

Matsui, T., J.B. Wilson, and C.J. West. 2004. Can Podocarpus totara and P. hallii be distinguished by bark thickness?: A study on the southern coast of Southland/Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 42:313-320., accessed 2009.03.23, now defunct).

Smale, M.C. and P.N. Smale. 2003. Dynamics of upland conifer/broadleaved forest at Waihaha, central North Island, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 33(2):509-528., accessed 2009.03.23, now defunct).

Wardle, P. 2001. Distribution of native forest in the upper Clutha district, Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 39:435-446., accessed 2009.03.22, now defunct).

Wardle, P. 2001. Holocene forest fires in the upper Clutha district, Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 39:523-542., accessed 2009.03.22, now defunct).

The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network, accessed 2010.11.22.

Gymnosperms of New Zealand.

Last Modified 2013-03-28