Indigenous species - Totara, Podocarpus totara
Totara is a native softwood with a reputation for high durability. It is found throughout New Zealand and once grew widely in lowland forests until these were cleared for farmland. Totara is a relatively slow growing tree of generally bushy form capable of growing for 1,000 years, reaching 30 metres high and 2-3 m in diameter. It has reasonable tolerance of cold and will grow to altitudes of 500-600 metres. Its fruit is favoured by kereru and tui, which disperse the seeds.
AltitudeModerate altitude; Low altitude;
RainfallHigh rainfall; Moderately high rainfall; Moderately low rainfall;
Soil depthDeep; Moderate depth; Shallow;
Soil drainageFree draining; Moderately free draining; Moderately poor draining;
TemperatureWarm; Moderate; Cold;
WindStrong wind; Moderate wind;
Prepare grass sites by spot spraying a one metre circle for each planting site. Use glyphosate herbicide with spray dye a few days before planting as this will not leave chemical residue in the soil. Prepare spots using straight lines and accurate spacings between spots so that trees can be easily found later. Cut down woody weeds and flatten these on the ground so they decay and don't support weed growth.
Trees are generally available from commercial nurseries as container-grown or bare-rooted stock. Price per tree should range from $1.50 - $5.00 for 1-2 year-old contract-grown forestry stock (2020 prices).
Take great care in the handling, transport and storage of seedlings, especially bare-rooted stock which must be kept cool and moist and planted as soon as possible after wrenching. Containerised (plug) stock should also be planted as soon as possible after receiving the plants. Make sure the root plugs are moist by soaking in a water trough.
Plant trees with a slow release fertilizer tablet underneath or put a trowel of high nitrogen fertiliser such as DAP or urea in a spade slit above the seedling.
Do not "slit and stuff" bare-rooted plants. Plant as per these instructions ».
For containerised stock, dig a hole twice the size of the plant container, leaving some soft soil at the bottom. Tease out (straighten and trim) any pot-bound roots before firming the soil around them, ensuring there are no air cavities.
Totara is a hardy pioneer species that establishes fairly easily and is reasonably shade tolerant, but is frost tender on very cold sites when young. On colder sites plant in early spring; in warmer areas with few frosts, plant from autumn.
Totara grown for timber should be planted at a spacing of about 2 x 2.5m (2,000 stems per hectare), or at up to 4 m spacings if interplanted with nurse species such as manuka. If the trees are going to be form-pruned, stocking can be lower.
- Prevent weeds from competing with the Totara seedlings for at least three years after planting.
- Protect seedlings from browsing by stock and wild animals.
Ensure the newly planted tree gets enough light, moisture and nutrients to establish unimpeded. Maintain young trees by clearing or spraying weeds around them for at least two years or until they are well established and growing. Seek advice on choice of chemical if release spraying.
Native trees, being slower growing than exotics, may require releasing from weeds for several years so they don't become smothered by early weed competition.
During establishment Totara responds to side shade by growing faster, straighter and taller with fewer branches. A nurse species that grows fast initially but does not grow too big, such as manuka, can be planted to provide side shelter. The nurse crop should ideally be planted a year or two ahead of the Totara.
Overhead shade slows down growth. For good growth rates release trees from competing vegetation so some direct sunlight always reaches the tree’s leader. Climbing plants and dense woody weeds can overtop young native trees and may require manually cutting back to provide a light-well for the young tree to grow up through.
Where Totara regenerates with manuka and gorse it will overtop these species within two or three decades, sooner if provided sufficient light.
Totara is moderately resistant to browsing by cattle, but not so much to browsing by sheep. If competing species are eaten out by grazing, regenerated totara can develop as a monoculture. Because it successfully germinates in grazed pasture and is unpalatable to stock, totara could be integrated within a grazed livestock operation.
Possums will browse totara shoots in spring/summer, but hares and rabbits find them less palatable. Possums should be controlled with poison, trapping or shooting.
Pests and diseases
Although generally healthy, totara is susceptible to defoliation by insects such as stick insects, scale insects and cicadas. Leafroller can damage terminal shoots and affect tree form. At altitudes above 500 m in the central North Island growth flushes in seedlings can be damaged by early and late frosts. The species is also subject to a fungal leaf spot disease.
Totara is one of the easiest native trees to grow and often establishes naturally from seed carried by birds. Provided sufficient time the trees will grow reasonably large, making totara one of the more promising native species for timber production.
However, totara is relatively light-demanding, so both excessive shade and competition slow down growth. On the other hand, if open grown, totara will tend to be heavily-branched.
Suitability for steep slopes: Totara generally develops a wide root plate and tolerates low fertility and thin soils, making it suitable for erosion control. Totara does not coppice, the stump dies when the tree is felled. See Report: Trees for steep slopes - Totara »
If open grown under full light conditions Totara will become heavily-branched with multiple leaders unless carefully form pruned. Close spacings provide better height growth and small branches but with a reduced diameter growth rate. Even at high stocking rates Totara may require form pruning to grow straight.
Form pruning: If grown for timber, form prune at regular intervals to encourage a single dominant leader, and prune the trees every two years to prevent lower branches from getting too big. Pruning can begin once the trees are well-established and above the height of any competing weed vegetation – e.g. from around 2 metres tall.
Form pruning guidelines are available here.
Clearwood pruning: The aim of clearwood pruning is to minimise the defect core and produce wood free of knots. Pruning "lifts" must be regular and undertaken at a frequency that minimises branch size and diameter over stubs (DOS). Ideally, only final crop trees would be clear-pruned. The smaller more horizontal branches on lower stems of Totara established within a highly-stocked stand (i.e. 1600 stems per hectare or more) will generally self-prune when they are shaded out. Larger, upward pointing branches should be removed as soon as possible as they will reduce height growth and increase defect core diameter.
Clearwood pruning guidelines are available here.
Trials suggest totara can be pruned quite hard, removing as much as 70% of the green crown. However, regular pruning is recommended (e.g. every two years), removing no more than 50% of the green crown while maintaining a small diameter over stubs (DOS).
Suitable pruning tools include loppers and a pruning hand-saw, a battery-operated reciprocating saw, or battery-operated loppers. Form pruning can be undertaken by using a pole pruner.
Close spacings provide better height growth and small branches but with a reduced diameter growth rate. Thinning is required to reduce stocking (number of trees per hectare) and encourage diameter growth in residual "crop" trees.
At age 40 the average diameter is 35 cm at a stocking of 400 stems per hectare; 20cm at 1000 stems per hectare; and 15cm at 2000 stems per hectare. Consequently, thinning should be based on tree diameter, not age. Fully stocked stands with a mean tree diameter of 20 cm would benefit from thinning to a stocking of less than 1000 stems per hectare (minimum 3 metre spacing); while those with a mean tree diameter of 30 cm would benefit from thinning to less than 500 stems per hectare (minimum 5 metre spacing).
When to harvest
A trial milling of farm grown totara in Northland using target diameter harvesting (i.e. harvesting trees above 30 cm in diameter) suggested that the trees were marketable at 50-80 years old. Details are given here.
Harvesting under a continuous cover regime is recommended.
Properties and end uses
Totara is relatively easy to mill, dry, work and finish. The timber is straight grained, soft, stable and suitable for all interior uses, particularly feature linings, joinery and furniture. The sapwood is resistant to borer and can be preservative-treated for use in-ground or for exterior joinery. Old-growth heartwood is naturally durable and was traditionally used for carving, foundation piles and fence posts. However heartwood is slow to form and no durability trials have been run on farm or plantation-grown totara heartwood. More detail is given here.
Markets and demand
Harvesting of Totara is controlled by the Forests Act (and must be undertaken sustainably). Planted Totara may be harvested for timber without controls if the owner has obtained a certificate from the Ministry for Primary Industries. The process is described here.
Markets are being developed in New Zealand for farm-grown totara. Heartwood is Building Code-compliant for durability in internal structural applications, exterior decking and weatherboards. A report on work towards status as an acceptable solution for structural applications is available here.
Totara grows well in the open and is one of the fastest types of native forest to establish. Annual growth rates of planted trees range from 10 to 50 cm in height and up to 1 cm in diameter. Plantation totara measured across a range of sites at age 60 averaged a mean diameter of 30 cm, rising to 50 cm on good sites with good management.
This paper offers some advice on monitoring growth.
Timber return on investment
No published calculations show return on investment for growing Totara for commercial purposes. Although a simple calculation suggests earnings from carbon credits might overtake the costs of establishment after 20 years, this calculation is sensitive to every assumption and no claim is made that it is true or accurate. The assumptions used were:
- Establishing 400 stems per ha at $5 per stem ($2,000 per ha)
- Cost of capital 5% pa real
- Lookup tables for indigenous forests apply: price of carbon $30 per NZU real
- Excluding the costs of land, rates, management and ETS compliance.
Carbon sequestration rate over time, and relevant Look-up Tables
If the land is registered under the Emissions Trading Scheme and the trees are planted so as to comply, i.e. at least one hectare, with tree crown cover of more than 30 percent in each hectare and an average width of tree crown cover of at least 30 metres, then they should earn carbon credits. The relevant look-up tables for determining how quickly they store carbon and earn credits, and guides to how to use the tables, may be downloaded here.
As Totara is an indigenous softwood, tables A2.2 and A2.4 apply, suggesting that over its first 30 years Totara stores carbon at a rate of approximately one third as fast as radiata pine.
Outside the ETS this carbon calculator suggests how much carbon a planted native forest will store over time.
- The Tōtara Opportunity - A Practical Guide to Managing Tōtara on Private Land
Quinlan, P. (2022), Tanes Tree Trust
- Totara: establishment, growth and management NZ Indigenous Tree Bulletin No.1
Bergin, D. (2003). New Zealand Indigenous Tree Bulletin No. 1 (pp. 40). Rotorua: NZ Forest Research Institute.
Full colour handbook: practical advice on growing and managing totara in NZ.
- Totara: Existing uses and market development opportunities for naturally regenerating totara timber
Quinlan, P., & Northland Totara Working Group. (2011). NZ Landcare Trust. Sustainable Farming Fund. Northland Totara Working Group.
Comprehensive report with practical information about harvesting, processing and marketing totara. Northland focus but relevant elsewhere. SFF project (L10/145).
- Northland totara working group (Tāne's tree trust)
The Northland Totara Working Group (NTWG) was established in 2005 to promote the management and support the research of naturally-regenerating totara trees on farms for multiple purposes including sustainable timber-production and a wide range of environmental benefits.