Plant Collector: Dracophyllum latifolium (or neinei)

This is a seriously cool small tree to have in the garden. What is more, it is a native. It is often referred to as a grass tree because the long, thin leaves grow in tufts at the tips of branches but Mark has always thought of them as being like the trees from a Dr Seuss picture book with their wavy candelabra branch structure.

D. latifolium is reasonably widespread across the upper half of the North Island, occurring naturally as far south as North Taranaki but you don’t see a lot of them in the wild. They are an under canopy tree but not in dense forest as they prefer more light and less competition. In a garden situation, this tends to translate to woodland conditions – never too wet but never drying out and with filtered light. They are happier in company, so even though they are curious enough to warrant pride of place, they don’t want to be specimen trees standing alone. Apparently they have been recorded up to 10m high in the wild but our specimens have never got much over 2.5m in several decades.

The particularly curious Dracophyllum latifolium
The particularly curious Dracophyllum latifolium

It is now thought that our dracophyllums originated in Australia and arrived here (presumably by wind blown seed) a mere few million years ago, since when they have evolved into 40 different species. They have alkaloids in the foliage which make them unpleasant to browsing animals and these also inhibit fungal growth so the fallen leaves don’t break down but instead form long lived carpets beneath the tree.

The trick to gathering seed is all in the timing. Gather it too early and the seed will not be ripe. If you leave it too late, the seed pod will have dehisced – cracked open on the tree and released the seed. If you do gather seed, sow them immediately in seed trays and be patient. We do not get seedlings sprouting up naturally in our garden, despite having several trees.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.