Fuscospora solandri (Black Beech)
Scientific name: Fuscospora solandri
Synonym; Nothofagus solandri var. solandri
Common name: Black Beech. Tawairauriki
Black beech (Fuscospora solandri) is an evergreen tree growing to about twenty-five metres tall with a trunk about one metre through. Fuscospora solandri once covered large tracts of the lowlands of eastern New Zealand – from the Rotorua district down to Southland. In many places, pure black beech forest covered the landscape to all horizons up to 750 metres above sea-level. Above that height, mountain beech replaces black beech(Nothofagus solandri var solandri). When young, its bark is pale and smooth, but it becomes rough, furrowed, and black with age, and is often covered with moss and a black velvety mould.
The leaves of Fuscospora solandrii are small, thick, and shiny. They are smooth around the edge, not toothed like most other kinds of beech. The dark green leaves are oval shaped with a blunt tip, 7–20 mm long, white underneath in mature trees. The Nothofagus solandri var solandri has tiny male red flowers. Every three years or so, the trees flower profusely, giving the whole tree a reddish hue in spring, early summer. The following autumn, millions of tiny seeds, or nutlets, fall from the trees. But in the intervening years, the trees may produce few or no seeds at all.
Fuscospora solandrii grows in lowland and lower montane forests southwards from the East Cape in the North Island, to south Canterbury in South Island, New Zealand.
Seven to eight hundred years ago, there were big fires in the black beech forests from Hawke’s Bay, down through Marlborough and Canterbury to Otego – probably started by early Maori settlers clearing land. You can still find the remnants of beech charcoal buried in those areas. Later, European settlers milled the beech forest, and burned off much more to make way for farms. By 1890, settlers had cleared beech forest from most of lowland New Zealand. Today, beech forests survive mainly on land too steep to farm or where they are preserved in National Parks.
Judging by the fossils in Antarctica, Nothofagus was growing in the continent of Gondwanaland at least 135 million years ago. When Gondwanaland broke up the landmasses of South America, Australia, and New Zealand drifted northwards with the beech trees on board.
Isolated on their different landmasses, beech trees evolved into about thirty species. Today you can find varieties of them in the mountains of Chile and Argentina, in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, and Australia, as well as here. Today 80 million-year-old fossilised beech trees from Gondwanaland and turned to coal, which is dug out of the Strongman mine No. 2 on the West Coast.
Maori tradition has it that Maui killed a taniwha, whose blood was splashed on the surrounding beech trees. You only have to cut the bark to see the beech sap run red. A small scale insect sucks the sap of beech trees and produces a sweet substance called ‘honeydew’. Tui, bellbirds, kaka, bats, native insects, and lizards depend on the honeydew for food, especially in winter when there is not much else to eat. Many other plants and animals also depend on beech trees for shelter and food.
A 80 year old tree at Tupare Gardens, New Plymouth, Taranaki.
Tree flowering October.