This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The mystic law of association seems to crowd around the word forest - the idea of all that is voracious in the brute, cunning in the reptile, or treacherous in the savage. Were we transferred to the jungles of India, the backwoods of America, or even the more immediate bush of Australia, we might experience such treachery, cunning, or voracity. But in the peaceful shades of New Zealand forests the traveller may rest at ease, without fearful apprehensions of attacks by savagery in any form whatever.
Unlike the open forest of the sister colony, the New Zealand forest presents one mass of dense vegetation; much of it seems to take the shape of an immense cone, commencing with the lesser forms of vegetation, and gradually rising, until in the centre the giants of the forest attain to an altitude of from 100 to 200 feet. The interior of the forest presents a strange appearance, causing one to think that nature had attempted the humourous in place of the grand or sublime. For the grotesque forms of parasites, the strange positions of twisted trees bending in all shapes so as to obtain space for growth, with here and there the dead and dying endeavouring to reach the ground, form figures, some of which would puzzle a Euclid to describe. But amid all we find ample food for reflection, in considering that while men congregate together, forming nations which in succession rise and fall by the clashing of arms or the degeneracy of power, Nature, as if all unconscious of such changes, unremittingly continues her'labour with fibre and tube, and the wondrous mechanism of a thousand leaves - thus building up these mighty forests, which patiently await the time when the adventurous explorer shall break in upon her solitude, and open to the world another field of enterprise.
The New Zealand forest is entirely evergreen, and though the return of spring is not visible in a fresh outburst of foliage, which makes the woodlands of the old country so attractive, yet there is compensation in the landscape being spared from the desolating appearance of leafless trees.
Many of those plants which adorn our conservatories with continual freshness are natives of this forest. For instance, the Tree-Fern Dicksonia antarctica is well known for its majestic appearance, but it should certainly be seen in this its natural habitat, with stems 20 feet high, crowned by fronds from 8 to 10 feet long. To stand at the side of a chasm and look down its rugged sides clothed with Blechnum and Mosses, a gushing stream sparkling at the base, and one of these giant Ferns filling up the centre, is but a sample of the many natural ferneries which the traveller comes across. Another exile known to most lovers of Palms is Areca sapida. It soon overtops the Tree-Ferns, while the different shades of green make a pleasing contrast. In spring it throws out bunches of red berries, which are much prized by the natives, while the leaves are used by many settlers for thatching purposes. In its habit of growth it seems to shun all exposure, and seeks the shelter of other trees. Often it is found in places completely guarded against both sun and wind. We have a species of Cabbage tree, which from its hardy habit would do well for "subtropical gardening." In leaf it is much like a Dracaena, and when seen at a distance looks very like a plume of feathers.
For greenhouse decoration in winter it would be a pleasing object. Another denizen of the forest here is Dacrydium cupressinum, a plant which has not received the attention which it deserves. It has been in cultivation more or less for thirty years, and having been numbered with the Juniper family, may in some collections be found labelled Juni-perus elata. The brightness of its evergreen foliage, which retains vigour and freshness throughout the entire year, with innumerable waving branches bending with feathery lightness to the most gentle breezes, including a pleasing symmetry of form, all tend to give it rank amongst the rare and beautiful, and make it a most desirable plant for greenhouse culture.
We may now notice one or two of the timber trees which constitute the wealth of the New Zealand forest. The foremost of these belongs to the natural order Coniferae, and is known to collectors of hard-woods as Dammara australis. Leaving out some of our British Oaks of historic fame, it would be almost impossible to find a more stately tree. It is common to meet with it in the forest of the North Island, rising to a height of 150 feet, and measuring 30 feet in circumference at the base. The wood is very inflammable, from the amount of resin contained in it; and this no doubt accounts for vast extents of such forest having been accidentally burnt. It exudes a valuable gum, which has become an important article of commerce. For shipbuilding it is considered equal to Oak, and large quantities are annually exported for that purpose. Another timber of colonial reputation is a species of the Chinese Pine, Podocarpus totara. In foliage it is somewhat sombre; the wood is so close in the grain as to be termed "iron wood" by the natives, and is of course very durable. As indicative of the wide domain of some of our botanical orders, we may mention that the Verbena has a representative here, which ranks amongst the finest timber trees which the colony possesses - we allude to Vitex litoralis.
After the first few years of growth it begins to assume form, which ever after marks it as one of the handsomest trees of the forest; and for the construction of wharfs and bridges, and every variety of work where it is necessary that wood be placed under water or deeply imbedded in the earth, its timber is considered invaluable.
The New Zealand forest cannot be said to be rich in floral productions. There are, however, some which deserve notice. Foremost of these, for peculiarity of growth and gaiety of flower, ranks the Rata or Metrosideros lucida. It commences to entwine round other trees as a very slim climber, but its growth is so rapid that it quickly encircles the whole tree. With every fold it tightens its grasp until all vitality is entirely crushed out of the trunk round which it clung for support. So does it enclose it with its own growth, that but for its twisted form of timber nothing would remain to tell of the encoffined tree. Many of them grow to an immense size, and the wood is much used by wheelwrights for special purposes in the craft. Another member of the same family, Metrosideros tomentosus, makes the forest somewhat gay during the months of December and January. Its flowers are scarlet and of capitulum inflorescence. British residents have honoured it with the name of "Christmas tree," and it goes to form part in church decoration during that festive season. Another floral attraction in the forest is Clematis Nova Zealandia. It provides itself with a natural trellis-work by entwining the rugged stem, and then hanging down from the branches in long festoons.
The flowers are pure white, and produced in rich profusion; and being a spring flower, is to the natives as a floral almanac, telling them when to plant their much-prized Kumara or Sweet Potato.
We might continue our list to a much greater extent, there being 140 different species of timber already recognised in the trade. These few "jottings" will, however, give some idea of the forest-lands of the " Britain of the South." William Forbes.