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Native Trees of Milford Sound and Fiordland

A light shining through a totara tree in Milford Sound.

Discover Fiordland's plants and native trees

The incredible diversity of flora in Milford Sound and Fiordland

Milford Sound flora thrives in a unique environment; an environment that has produced an amazing array of plant life. The climate of Milford Sound may not be ideal for man but there are thousands of species that absolutely love living here.

What trees grow in Fiordland?

From the tallest, oldest rimu standing head and shoulders above the forest canopy, right down to the mosses and lichens in vibrant greens, yellows and reds, every inch of this land is bursting with life. More than 700 plant species are unique to Fiordland, and new ones are still being discovered. This incredible diversity played a big role in Fiordland achieving World Heritage status.

The mighty guardians of Fiordland: Beech Tree Forest

Beech trees dominate the landscape of Fiordland. The most common is silver beech, but you’ll also find mountain beech on the higher, drier slopes and red beech lurking in lowland valleys. The best way to spot a beech tree is by their leaves, because their shape can vary so much according to where they’re growing. On flat and fertile land they stand tall and straight, like in the beech forests of the northern hemisphere. But quite often they’re hanging onto the side of a mountain and they grow gnarled and twisted, like something out of a fairy tale. Right up near the tree line, conditions are so harsh that they don’t grow very high at all, and you can feel like a giant walking in an elfin forest.

Whether they’re tall or short, red or silver, straight or gnarly, all of the beech trees flower in spring, crowning the forest with bursts of scarlet. A few weeks later you’ll get new, lime-green foliage sprouting through, and among the upper branches, you’ll also see colonies of thick white lichens. So looking at a beech canopy can be a very colourful experience!

Other Trees: Rimu, Kahikatea, Totara

But there are plenty of other trees in the forest; some mightier than the beech. At lower altitudes, tall podocarps, or native conifers, thrust upwards through the canopy. The rimu is one of New Zealand’s oldest tree species and can grow to 40 metres. Look out for shaggy, olive-green foliage trailing from black bark.

In damp valleys, you’ll find matai, or black pine, with black bark and yellowy-brown leaves. Then there’s New Zealand’s tallest native tree, the kahikatea, or white pine, reaching up to 60 metres. You’ll find it growing around swamps and lakes, and although it bears fruit, only the birds can reach it because you’ll usually find that even the lowest branches are at least 30 metres off the ground!

Up on the mountain slopes, you’ll find the twiggy crowns of the majestic totara, which stands stiff and prickly with thick, stringy bark that peels off in great fibrous chunks. Maori used to use it to make war canoes and carvings. A totara tree can live for a thousand years and doesn’t mind the cold and winds of the upper slopes, but for some reason it’s generally confined to the other side of the mountains, towards the coast. There are a few pockets of totara along this side though, and in fact, you may see some from the Milford Road when you pass through Totara Flat, which is actually quite an unlikely spot for them to be growing.

Small trees and the remnants of a primeval forest: Tree Ferns

All these giants of the forest provide shelter for hundreds of other species. Smaller trees like the rata, the tree-fuschia, wineberry, pepperwood and the pungent-smelling stinkwood all jostle together to form a thick understorey beneath the canopy, sometimes bursting into bright shows of colour.

There’s one family of plants in particular that give the forest its primeval, jungly, almost tropical look, and that’s the tree ferns. If they look like something out of the age of the dinosaurs, that’s because they are! Tree ferns once covered Gondwana and here in New Zealand they are still everywhere. They love wet, shady parts of the forest, and grow slowly with spongy or furry trunks exploding in a crown of lush, juicy, fern leaves.

The most famous is the silver fern, which is found only in New Zealand and can grow up to 10 metres high. This plant is a national icon—the national netball team are called the Silver Ferns, and you’ll see fern motifs on the rugby shirts of the famous New Zealand All Blacks, as well as company logos, jewellery and heraldry. There’s even a call to get rid of our current national flag and use the silver fern instead! When you’re walking through the forest, keep an eye out for large fern leaves with a silvery underside. The Maori used to use these to guide their path at night, by laying them silver-side up on the forest floor where they caught the moonlight.

There are dozens of other fern species, some carpeting the forest floor, others gently unfurling from fallen logs, or camping out on the branches of tall trees.

Survival of the fittest in the forest and on the mountain tops

Many forest species don’t need soil to grow—they clamber and climb and cascade from every available foothold, filling every space and sometimes throttling each other in the process. Look at any tree and see how many other plants are living among its branches, with more plants living on them. Throw in a few creeper vines, some palm-like trees and a thick carpet of moss on everything, and it’s a jungle out there!

There are open spaces, though. Every winter, avalanches crash through the forest and clear a swathe of land, and the bare earth is eagerly snapped up by big, moist cushions of moss, liverworts, then shrubs and tree seedlings, which will eventually become new forest. On regular avalanche paths though, only grasses and scrub can survive the constant destruction.

The mountain tops are also forest-free. Up towards the heights, you find fewer species able to survive the wind and the thin, barren soil. Trees bend double, shrink in size and then peter out altogether, paving the way for some of the beautiful mountain herbs and wild flowers that bring life to the hilltops.

Here you’ll find alpine meadows full of tree daisies, hardy cabbage trees, buttercups, eyebright and tussock grass, including one rare species of snow tussock that’s found only in these mountains. Around the bogs and marshes you’ll find lots of juicy-looking sphagnum, sundews and bladderworts, rushes, sedges and mosses, which would make very comfortable beds if they weren’t so squelchy!

There’s barely a corner of this incredible land that isn’t overflowing with life. And that’s just the plants.