Our native plants: Celery pine

The celery pine (Phyllocladus) is a member of a small genus of conifers that, although they appear to have leaves, don’t! Three celery pines are native to New Zealand and one each to Tasmania (Australia) and Malesia. What appear to be leaves are short, flattened twigs called phylloclades and give the trees their common name as they’re thought to resemble celery leaves. The phylloclades do, however, function as leaves and carry out photosynthesis.

The trees don’t flower but have pollen cones that produce seed. The seeds are consumed by birds which in passing dab on a piece of fertiliser and spread.

celery pine - Copy

Celery pine ‘foliage’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The three types found in New Zealand are Phyllocladus trichomanoides (tānekaha), Phyllocladus toatoa (toatoa) and Phyllocladus alpinus (mountain celery pine, mountain toatoa).

Tānekaha (strong man), which can reach 20m, appears early in the growth of a forest and regenerates well in the shelter of mānuka and kānuka. Its white timber is the strongest and most flexible of the New Zealand conifers. Māori used it for canoes and houses, and for koikoi (double-pointed spears). They also produced a red dye from its bark, which contains 20-25 percent tannin. Early settlers used the timber for marine piles, bridges, railway sleepers, and props in the coal and gold mines.

The Meaning of Trees entry for celery pine includes this nugget: Unsurprisingly, tānekaha trees were highly valued, particular in areas were they were scarce. In Ruatuhuna, the few large specimens of celery pine were so highly prized that they had their own names, and only those with direct ancestry to the area were allowed to take bark from them.

Toatoa grows up to 15m, with distinctly whorled branches – trees that grow in the open are conical in shape. It regenerates freely in cut-over or damaged forests, and can live for 500 years.

Mountain toatoa ranges in size from a small shrub in alpine scrub, where it is most common, to a tree of up to 9m in upland forest.

celery pine

Photo: Sandra Simpson

They are considered to be Gondwana plants with fossil pollen and the look of the trees indicating they were present when Zealandia separated from Australia.

Elie-Abel Carrière (1818-96), a French botanist, described a live plant in cultivation in the 1850s at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, most likely the Tasmanian species. At the time Carrière was a leading authority on conifers.

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