Our various species of Hoheria certainly do put a lot of effort into their existence. Several species exhibit some of the quickest growth rates amongst our native trees, whilst they also smother themselves with white flowers that are epicentres for insect activity. Due to this kind of dedication to the business of being a successful tree, they are reasonably popular within cultivation (although there remains a great deal more potential for their use in gardens and larger-scale plantings).
As in the case of a few native genera (such as Toronia and Corokia), Hoheria receives its scientific name from a Māori name for the tree, houhere – a title that is traditionally applied by Māori to several species of Hoheria (although other names also refer to members of the genus, such as houhi and hungere).
Flowering within Hoheria happens from mid-summer through to autumn, at which time their abundantly-produced flowers are a valuable nectar source for both native and exotic bees (making it a desirable tree for beekeepers), as well as butterflies and other insects.
Traditionally, our Hoheria spp. have also been of use to people for the beautifully interlaced inner bark that gives it one of its common names, lacebark. This layer, which is termed bast, is a part of the vascular system of the plant, via which sap is transported. It forms delicate networks of fibres that have been adapted into a range of objects, including ladies’ bonnets and evening purses1.
The genus is confined to New Zealand and consists of seven species over the length of the country. The extraordinarily rapid-growing Hoheria equitum is restricted to the Poor Knights Islands and Hen and Chickens Islands off the Northland coast, whilst Hoheria ovata is associated with northwestern areas of the South Island. Our two deciduous species of Hoheria, commonly known as mountain lacebarks, are divided on climatic lines, with Hoheria glabrata (pictured above, in the ‘Orchard’ on the Routeburn Track) particularly associated with the wetter western parts of the South Island (as well as Mt Taranaki) and Hoheria lyallii occupying drier, eastern areas of the South Island.
Hoheria is a good example of the importance of considering which species are local to certain areas, for Hoheria populnea has been cultivated beyond its natural range for a long time – and is therefore one of several plants in the peculiar position of being ‘native weeds’. It is still commonly sold in many parts of the country in which more appropriate species (such as Hoheria sextylosa, H. ovata and H. angustifolia) should be preferred; an error that some consultation with the best specialist native nurseries can help to avoid.
Sometimes, it is not the capacity of a tree to stand out that is of most importance, but rather its ability to fit in anonymously to a given context. This somewhat particular requirement was foremost in our minds as we carried out a design for planting either side of a shelterbelt on a semi-rural property, leading us to specify Hoheria ovata as one of the major species within this low-key planting.
It stands to reason that Hoheria ovata should be suitable for a situation in which we were attempting to draw out the qualities of the shelterbelt (thereby appropriating the shelterbelt into a more amorphous woodland space) when one considers the name of its close relative, Hoheria populnea (which means poplar-like). Poplars are one of the commonest species used for shelterbelts, and their distinctive qualities of light grey, reflective bark and an upright growth form are repeated in a more compact manner by Hoheria ovata.
H. ovata is restricted to northwestern regions of the South Island, from the upper West Coast to the impressive limestone landscapes of Northwest Nelson, including Takaka Hill and the dolomite peak of Mt Burnett. H. ovata is frequently associated with rocky habitats, such as the steep northern face on Takaka Hill where these images were taken, as well as high-light forest habitats (such as on the margins). It is most similar to Hoheria populnea, although it attains smaller dimensions than that northern species, and has thicker leaves and smaller flowers2.
Hoheria ovata is one of the earliest members of its genus to come into flower (starting in December), and has a longer flowering season than similar species3. It is theorised to have evolved as a distinct species through hybridism between Hoheria sexstylosa and H. populnea, neither of which occurs within the home range of H. ovata.