Plant profiles > Nestegis
Family : Oleaceae
The four native tree species from the genus, Nestegis, were previously referred to as the New Zealand olives. Although they are no longer considered to be olives (that is, members of the genus, Olea), their old name was well founded - as Nestegis is still placed within the olive family (Oleaceae). They are more readily known to New Zealanders by their Māori name, maire1.
A notable characteristic of maire is their extremely hard wood; particularly that of black maire (Nestegis cunninghamii). Within our native flora, only southern rātā has harder timber than black maire; a fact that is not lost on carpenters whose tools have been blunted by the maire's dense timber. Due to the hardness and durability of its timber, maire was traditionally utilised for a range of specialised tools or objects by both modern New Zealanders and pre-European Māori; such as ko (digging sticks) or canoe paddles, or even as a substitute for metal bearings in machinery and implements2. Another, less fortuitous quality of maire is their suitability as firewood, a use that has caused large quantities of black maire to literally go up in smoke over the last century (and which, thankfully, is no longer common practice).
It has been good to see over recent years that some Auckland City Council arborists have expressed interest in their use as street trees, and for other amenity uses. Although capable of growing in excess of 10m, our native species of Nestegis normally attain smaller dimensions and have a relatively compact growth form - rendering them worthy of greater attention as specimen trees, especially in urban areas and parks.
Of the many native trees that should be better represented within cultivation, this small tree is one of the most glaring omissions from our gardens. It is native to the northern coastline of the North Island (in addition to growing naturally on Norfolk Island), and is therefore most suited to growing in warmer areas of New Zealand.
The most outstanding characteristic of N. apetala is its growth form. Its spreading branches often grow in a 'winding', tortuous manner, similar to the way in which pohutukawa frequently develop. This gives them an expressive appearance, of the kind that bonsai enthusiasts regularly attempt to imbue into their subjects. Furthermore, what sets coastal maire truly apart is that they assume this form on a relatively small scale (N. apetala can grow up to 6m)- one which is more suited to many urban properties than very large trees like pohutukawa.
Its other great attraction is the foliage, which has a brightness and depth of hue that is very valuable in garden trees. Nestegis apetala is often found within rocky coastal habitats; and, accordingly, is well adapted to the difficult conditions associated with much of the human landscape.
As with many coastal natives, it responds well to considerable amounts of fertiliser; due to a natural history of millions of years in which countless seabirds would have deposited guano upon our coastal forests3. Although not common on the mainland, coastal maire survives in good numbers on northern offshore islands, especially where pest animals cannot affect their populations.
In line with other members of its genus, its timber is very hard and durable; as evidenced by its common name upon Norfolk Island - ironwood. In the nineteenth century, it was used in the copper mine at Great Barrier Island for such articles as mine props and machine bearings2. N. apetala was initially discovered to science on Norfolk Island, and was subsequently found on northern offshore islands in New Zealand, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
- Two other native trees from different genera are also called maire (swamp maire, or Syzigium maire, and a hemi-parasitic tree that is simply known as maire, Mida salicifolia), whilst the term has also been applied by Māori to other trees which bear very dense, even timber (according to T. Kirk, 1889). This is a common case with Māori plant names. However, the name is most commonly associated with Nestegis (S. maire is normally termed maire tawhaki or swamp maire, and Mida salicifolia - which has a similar appearance to certain Nestegis - is almost never cultivated, due to its highly specialised ecological requirements).
- As described by Thomas Kirk in his 1889 work, 'The Forest Flora of New Zealand' (Wellington; George Didsbury, Government Printer).
- This insight was pointed out to me by Terry Hatch, when explaining the preference that many of our coastal plants have towards fertile sites. Many previously common coastal species still thrive within seabird communities or in naturally fertile areas such as riverine habitats. This is an example of the benefit of understanding the connectedness of the many parts that occupy, and have contributed towards the formation of, our ecosystems. Sadly, the birds, lizards, fungi and other members of such ecologies are in many cases, either absent or in markedly decreased quantities, due to the effects of human settlement upon the land. The exponential value of restoring entire systems has already been illustrated on many offshore island restoration projects, and (I anticipate) will also be shown in the future as mainland projects such as Tawharanui Open Sanctuary mature.