The act of identifying and naming plants changes the way we see the bush. No longer is it a tangle of different greens, a confusing mass of different shape leaves. Bark, flowers, berries, leaves, all provide clues about the trees in the canopy above or help us distinguish the different plants in the understorey.  Once we can tell them apart the bush, wetlands, coast all begin to look very different to our eyes.

But learning about native plants even for those regularly in the bush can be a slow process. Among my Forest and Bird tramping group, there are repeated discussions as we remind ourselves about the differences between mataī and miro; mānuka and kānuka; horopito and toropapa. (Perhaps we can be forgiven for struggling to tell the latter two apart, as page 30 of The Meaning of Trees tells me this is likely to be down to plant mimicry.) 

In the end, it is rich descriptions and stories that help us remember the differences and characteristics. Toetoe has drooping flowers, those of pampas are erect and spear-like. Rangiora is the bushman’s friend, its thick leaves were handy for toilet paper or writing notes on. The blood red colour below the flaking bark of mataī was seen in some traditions as representing the blood of Tunaroa, the eel god slain by Māui. 

The Meaning of Trees: the history and uses of New Zealand’s native plants by Robert Vennell is a treasure trove of such rich descriptions and stories of our native trees, shrubs and and other plants such as vines, flax, bracken and even bull kelp. The book rewards repeated reading, and dipping into, as each time something new stands out, a whakataukī, a legend, or maybe where it got its name.

Educators whether in forest kindergartens, secondary schools or U3A will find this book invaluable. with such wonderful stories to pass on to children (and adults), they’ll be sure to be awakening interest in our native plants. I’ll be weaving snippets into my tramping group discussions, starting with the interesting idea of plant mimicry but also sharing colourful stories, two elephants have been known to die from tutu poisoning; and legends, how kauri trees and whales are brothers. 

The Meaning of Trees explores the rich interaction between the people of New Zealand and native plants. The author’s passion for plants and curiosity about them, shines through as he addresses questions such as: What plants were sacred to Māori? Which did they use as medicine? How did early European settlers make use of plants? Which are of interest to scientists today searching for useful compounds? What native plants can you eat? This is information you’d be hard pressed to find gathered together like this from any other source.

The book is divided into sections such as ‘medicinal plants’, ‘climbers, stickers and stingers’. It’s clearly laid out, nicely illustrated, with several pages devoted to each plant. It’s a shame there is no index as this would have made the information more accessible, maybe the publishers will see fit to add this in a reprint.

I highly recommend The Meaning of Trees. If you thought native plants were boring or less interesting than our birds and lizards, this book will show you otherwise.  


Find our more about Robert Vennell on his blog, also called ‘The Meaning of Trees’ or Facebook Page

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book but no payment for a review

Native Trees and Plants Brought Vividly to Life