The Gymnosperm Database


Agathis australis


Dacrycarpus dacrydioides


Phyllocladus toatoa


Podocarpus nivalis.


Prumnopitys taxifolia.


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Conifers of New Zealand


New Zealand's native gymnosperms are all conifers, representing three families, ten genera and twenty species. All species, but only two genera (Halocarpus and the monotypic Manoao) are endemic to New Zealand. This level of endemism is typical for the vast Austro-Malesian archipelago, where most conifers are island endemics isolated from each other since the Cretaceous. For example, the nearest large island to New Zealand, New Caledonia, has 43 conifer species, all of them endemic. Conifer endemism is also the rule in Australia (including Tasmania), New Guinea, Borneo, and the Philippines.

New Zealand also has a variety of highly successful naturalized (in NZ they say "wilding") conifers. The principal ones are Pinus radiata, which is very widely planted as a timber tree and has invaded native nonforest habitats; and Pinus contorta and Pseudotsuga menziesii, introduced as a timber tree but now much more economically important (in a negative sense) as a weed invading native nonforest habitats, especially at subalpine elevations. Many other species, originally introduced for timber production or ornamental purposes, are also locally naturalized. For more information, visit (2017.11.07).

If you go to New Zealand to see its native conifers, you will find that they vary widely in occurrence and ease of access. A significant fraction of the country is still covered with original native forest. In these areas you can find examples of the largest and oldest forest trees, growing in native habitat. Most of these forests are preserved in National Parks and Forest Reserves administered by the Department of Conservation. See the species descriptions for suggestions about the best places to see each species. You will generally find that the "big five" podocarps - totara, rimu, kahikatea, matai and miro - are very widely distributed in native forest, with totara and rimu also enjoying status as popular ornamentals. Within its North Island range, kauri is also very common, with native groves usually a source of local pride. Most other species are more restricted in range, are not popular as ornamentals, and require some searching to locate. Mount Ruapehu and the surrounding Tongariro National Park are a good place to spot mountain pine, pink pine, silver pine, mountain rimu, pahautea, mountain toatoa, snow totara, and Hall's totara. Puketi or Waipoua forest is a good place to find monoao and toatoa. The other species pretty much have to be sought out in the best parts of their native range.

Species identification in native habitat can be problematic. The podocarps do not retain seed for long, and in any case it is usually borne high in the canopy of forest trees, so it will generally not be available. Big forest trees are often so tall that you cannot even see the foliage, so bark characters and tree form are important in identifying these trees (the Big Five, the cedars, the forest phylloclades and the kauri). The scale-leaved podocarps (Halocarpus, Manoao, and Lepidothamnus intermedius) have very similar foliage and bark characters, so they are particularly problematic. Pay particular attention to juvenile foliage (which, in any case, is often the only kind you will see) and habitat when identifying the scale-leaved podocarps.

"The profound silence which reigns in these regions produces a pleasing gloom on the mind, and the scene displays better than the most classic architecture the grandeur of repose. No sound is heard save the falling of trees, or the parrots' shrill screeche, as birds which enliven the outskirts of forests are mute in their interior. Around the graves of past generations of trees the air is hushed into stillness, while the tops of the living generation are agitated with gales and breezes. At Christmas the Pohutukawa (Metrosideros) is covered with scarlet flowers, and is then the most gaudy of forest trees; and the Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) possesses a melancholy beauty and an indescribable grandeur. Few of the pines recall to the settler's eyes the same trees in England, and singular to relate, unlike their congeners, the majority of them grow intermixed with other trees. The celebrated and beautiful Kauri (Dammara australis) is the only pine bearing a cone" Thomson (1859).


The following sites are particularly useful to anyone desiring to tour New Zealand in search of native conifers. I also recommend a Google search for the following Forest Parks and National Parks: Te Urewera, Whirinaki, Taranaki, Ohinetonga, Pureora, Waitakere, Coromandel, Waipoua, Omahuta and Puketi (all on the North Island; I have much less information on the South and Stewart Islands).

New Zealand Department of Conservation

There are scores of relevant sites linked here.

New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

NZ group dedicated to documentation and conservation of native flora. Includes substantial information on each species.

Species List

Agathis australis

New Zealand kauri

Dacrycarpus dacrydioides


Dacrydium cupressinum


Halocarpus bidwillii

Mountain pine, bog pine

Halocarpus biformis

Pink pine

Halocarpus kirkii


Lepidothamnus intermedius

Yellow silver pine

Lepidothamnus laxifolius

Mountain rimu, pygmy pine

Libocedrus bidwillii

Pahautea, mountain cedar

Libocedrus plumosa


Manoao colensoi

Silver pine

Phyllocladus alpinus

Mountain toatoa

Phyllocladus toatoa


Phyllocladus trichomanoides


Podocarpus acutifolius

[common name?]

Podocarpus laetus

montane totara, Hall's totara

Podocarpus nivalis

Snow totara

Podocarpus totara


Prumnopitys ferruginea


Prumnopitys taxifolia


Podocarp forests of New Zealand

The south-west New Zealand podocarp forest primarily occurs on valley floors and lowlands in mild wet areas west of the main S Island divide. Rainfall is 5-10 m per year with no pronounced dry season. Consequently, soil moisture varies from ample to excessive. At higher and colder sites (above about 500 m elevation) the podocarp forest is transitional to a Nothofagus (Antarctic beech) forest. The dominant trees form an uneven canopy above a dense understory. Lianas and creepers cover the trees. The ground is thickly covered in ferns and mosses. Overstory dominance is controlled largely by substrate variation. The most common dominant, rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), forms extensive stands on podsol soils of glacial outwash and marine terraces, such as those seen in Waitutu, the South Okarito and Waikukapa forests. Kahikatea (Podocarpus dacrydioides) forests are only found in fertile lowlands. These once covered large areas, but are now reduced to less than 5000 ha. Additional canopy dominants include matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia), totara (Podocarpus totara), and miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea). Subcanopy dominants include the angiosperms kapuka (Griselinea litoralis), kamahi (Wienmania racemosa), kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), peppertree (Psudowintera colorata), five finger (Neopanax arboreum), mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus), and tarata (Pitosporum eugenoides); and the tree ferns Dicksonia squarrosa, Cyathea medullaris, and Cyathea smithii.

In most of New Zealand (excepting the far north), podocarps dominate the native forest. Their principal competitor is the antarctic beech, Nothofagus. It appears that one of the principal reasons for podocarp dominance is that Nothofagus is dependent upon an ectomycorrhiza, while all of the conifers (Araucariaceae and Cupressaceae as well as Podocarpaceae) form an endomycorrhiza. The absence of suitable ectomycorrhizas outside of the extant Nothofagus forests greatly restricts its ability to disperse (Baylis 1980).

Post-Glacial History of South Island Forests

McGlone (1980) presented data from analysis of pollen cores taken from raised bogs in coastal Southland (precise locations not stated). He found: "The first forest to colonise the region at the beginning of the post-glacial was dominated by [Prumnopitys taxifolia] and Dacrycarpus dacrydioides. From 10,000 to 5-6,000 years ago this forest showed little change, except for a tendency for Dacrycarpus to decrease. At about 5-6,000 years ago there was an upsurge of Dacrydium cupressinum. At the same time, or shortly after, Nothofagus menziesii began to increase. After its initial rapid increase, D. cupressinum stabilised but N. menziesii has continued to increase slowly right up to the present. Dacrydium bidwillii / biforme group, although present before the rise of D. cupressinum, increased in abundance on the bog surfaces. The prominent layer of D. bidwillii / biforme group wood found in many Southland bogs probably dates from this period. The final major forest change recorded in these bogs, the spread of Nothofagus fusca group (this group includes all New Zealand Nothofagus species, except N. menziesii), occurred between 2,500 and 2,000 years ago."

Paleobotany of Australia and New Zealand conifers

This bibliography was taken from, to which I was directed in 1997 by Mike Pole, but which is now defunct.

Pole, M. 1993. Keeping in touch: vegetation prehistory on both sides of the Tasman. Australian Systematic Botany 6:387-397.

At the end of the Cretaceous, New Zealand broke away from the Australian-Antarctic continental mass and was physically isolated by the Tasman Sea. Early in the Tertiary, New Zealand moved a long way north relative to Australia, but with the rapid northward movement of Australia, starting in the Eocene, Australia overtook New Zealand, so that much of the South Island of New Zealand now lies south of Tasmania. The northward and relative movements of the two blocks provide an interesting framework for comparing the development of their vegetation.

In the Late Cretaceous New Zealand and Australia were physically attached and shared a flora dominated by podocarp and araucarian conifers and deciduous angiosperms, consistent with growth in a polar latitude with periods of winter darkness. When New Zealand broke away and moved north, a typically evergreen angiosperm-dominated flora developed. This showed similarities to the extant and fossil flora of the Australian mainland. To the south, Tasmania developed a quite distinct flora often dominated by conifers.

In the early-mid Miocene, when New Zealand lay at the same latitude as south eastern Australia, a change from Nothofagus dominated rainforest to, at times, drier vegetation including wet sclerophyll with Eucalyptus, occurred in both regions. This may record the roughly synchronous effects of more northerly tracking subtropical high pressure systems. In the Late Miocene/Pliocene there was a return to Nothofagus-podocarp dominance in both Australia and New Zealand.

Today, the conifer-dominated communities of Tasmania have largely retreated to montane regions where they form dwarf shrublands, and have disappeared from the Australian mainland. In New Zealand the situation has quite reversed from that of much of the Tertiary, and conifers now form a prominent part of many rainforest communities.

The evidence suggests Australia and New Zealand can be thought of as a single biogeographic entity, with the vegetation in both landmasses responding principally to climate change, with relatively free exchange, at least in one direction, of plants, rather than evolving in isolation since Late Cretaceous oceanic rifting.

Pole, M.S. 1992. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 2. Conifers. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 22:287-302.

Remains of six conifer taxa are described from early Miocene sediments of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. Two of these are new, Retrophyllum vulcanense sp. nov. and Podocarpus alwyniae sp. nov.. The others are Araucaria sp. sect. Eutacta, present as impressions of vegetative shoots and isolated ovuliferous cone scales, shoots of Dacrycarpus dacrydioides (A. Rich.) de Laubenf., a single impression of a Phyllocladus sp. phylloclade, and an impression of an unidentified shoot. This is the first record of the genus Retrophyllum from New Zealand.

Pole, M.S. 1992. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 3. Possible cycad. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 22:303-306.

Hill, R.S., and M.S. Pole. 1992. Leaf and shoot morphology of extant Afrocarpus, Nageia and Retrophyllum (Podocarpaceae) species, and species with similar leaf arrangement from Tertiary sediments in Australasia. Australian Systematic Botany.

Pole, M.S. 1993. Miocene broad-leaved Podocarpus from Foulden Hills, New Zealand. Alcheringa 17:173-177.

Pole, M.S., R.S. Hill, N. Green, and M.K. Macphail. 1993. The Oligocene Berwick Quarry flora - rainforest in a drying environment. Australian Systematic Botany 6:399-427.

The Late Oligocene to possibly earliest Early Miocene Berwick Quarry macrofossil flora was first described very early in this century by Henry Deane, but has since been largely ignored. Recent work at the quarry has led to major new collections and a reinvestigation of the flora. Seventeen taxa of macrofossils have been recovered, including Agathis, Dacrycarpus, four species of Lauraceae, Gymnostoma, Nothofagus, Eucalyptus, an indeterminate Myrtaceae and Proteaceae, three possible Cunoniaceae, and six unidentified taxa. The Berwick Quarry flora contains species which are consistent with rainforest in the region, however, the flora is also notable for the presence of leaves of Eucalyptus, leaving little doubt that the flora at Berwick Quarry represents a mixture of rainforest and open forest taxa. The vegetation was probably a mosaic of open and closed forest, representing some of the earliest evidence for seasonality in Australia during the development of the modern flora.

Pole, M.S. 1993. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 10. Paleoecology and stratigraphy. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 23:393-426.

A stratigraphic sequence of vegetation is recognised from macrofossil assemblages in Lower-Mid Miocene fluvial-lacustrine sediments of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. Temperature, water-level, drainage, fire and rainfall were probably the factors that divided the distribution of plant taxa in to several distinct communities. These communities are compared with structural vegetation types presently recognised in eastern Australia, including notophyll vine forest (sometimes with podocarp conifers), microphyll forest, araucarian notophyll vine forest, tall open-forest (at times probably closed forest with sclerophyll emergents), notophyll feather palm vine forest, and fern fields.

The earliest assemblage in the Cromwell region represents Nothofagus forest (microphyll fern forest or microphyll vine forest), or at least a forest in which Nothofagus was probably an important element. Rainfall was high, but the associated presence of Allocasuarina indicates forest edge conditions, or perhaps disturbance by fire, which removed the canopy long enough for this genus to have a temporary advantage. Temperature may have been cooler than that required for subtropical rainforest, or alternatively, soil nutrients may have been low.

The succeeding Araucarian zone may indicate lower rainfall (and perhaps warmer conditions than when Nothofagus dominated the vegetation), allowing the araucarians to compete with the rainforest trees and the Allocasuarina to persist, but not low enough to result in a high frequency of fires. Vegetation was araucarian notophyll vine forest.

The Eucalyptus zone suggests that rainfall continued to fall to the point at which the frequency of fires rose to at least once every 350 years, and a tall-open forest developed. The part of this zone in which Allocasuarina was absent may represent the peak frequency of fires, which were detrimental to Allocasuarina. A dramatic increase in rainfall and possibly soil-nutrients seems to have eliminated fire and caused the local replacement of Eucalyptus and Allocasuarina by a podocarp notophyll evergreen vine forest, including Elaeocarpaceae, Lauraceae, Myrtaceae, Podocarpaceae and, in areas of impeded drainage, palms.

A return to drier conditions, or a large fire, heralded the regrowth of Eucalyptus - Allocasuarina woodland or open forest. Rainforest conditions are probably represented in the highest part of the sequence. At various times there were wide expanses of raised peat bog with a generally treeless cover. Climate was mesothermic.

Pole, M.S. 1995. Late Cretaceous macrofloras of Eastern Otago, New Zealand: Gymnosperms. Australian Systematic Botany 8:1067-1106.

Six new coniferous fossils are described from the Late Cretaceous of eastern Otago, New Zealand. These include two new species of Araucaria, A. desmondii, for which a new section, Perpendicula is erected, and A. taieriensis. Syntypes of Dammara oweni Ett. and D. uninervis Ett. are illustrated and concluded to be a single species of Araucaria, A. oweni. The diagnosis of Araucarioides Bigwood and Hill is emended and a new species, A. falcata (the first record of this genus from New Zealand) is described. Podozamites taenioides Cantrill is also placed into Araucarioides. Two new genera and species of Podocarpaceae are described, Kaia minuta and Katikia inordinata. A new genus and species, Otakauia lanceolata, is described and placed in the Taxodiaceae. The type specimen of Sequoia novae-zeelandiae Ett. (Taxodiaceae) is re-examined and its cuticle described for the first time. Its identity is confirmed, but it is placed in Sequoiadendron which follows a more recent nomenclatural change involving extant species. A range of more poorly preserved conifer material is illustrated.

The original vegetation grew in near-polar latitudes and would have experienced long periods of winter-darkness.


Baylis, G.T.S. 1980. Mycorrhizas and the spread of beech. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 3:151-153.

Beveridge, A.E. 1964. Dispersal and destruction of seed in central North Island podocarp forests. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 11:48-56.

June, S.R. 1983. Rimu regeneration in a north Westland hardwood podocarp forest. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 6:144-145.

McDonald, Dale and David A. Norton. 1992. Light environments in temperate New Zealand podocarp rainforests. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 16(1):15-22.

McGlone, M.S. 1980. Post-glacial vegetation change in coastal southland. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 3:153-154.

Stewart, Glenn H. 2002. Structure and canopy tree species regeneration requirements in indigenous forests, Westland, New Zealand. DOC Science Internal Series 66:5-33. Available:, accessed 2009.06.09. This paper discusses, for a variety of New Zealand species, the regeneration requirements of main canopy tree species; the natural gaps that occur in old-growth forests; and the areas affected by natural disturbances as reflected by patch sizes of relatively even-aged groups of trees.

Thomson, A. S. 1859. The Story of New Zealand. London: J. Murray.

Last Modified 2017-12-29