Myoporum laetum is a fast-growing evergreen shrub or small tree which sometimes spreads to as much as 4 metres. Bearing thick, glossy yellow-green to dark green heavily spotted oval leaves. It often appears dome-shaped at first but as it gets older, distorts as branches break off. Can handle heavy trimming to maintain size and shape. Ngaio grows very well in coastal areas of New Zealand including the Chatham Islands. It grows in lowland forest, tolerating coastal conditions and poor, dry soils. Frost-tender when young.
Flowers of Myoporum laetum are white with purplish spots, in clusters of 2-6, seen in spring and summer, followed by a purple oval drupe up to 6mm in size. Flowers attract bees, berries provide food for wood pigeons.
*The leaves of this tree contain a liver toxin Ngaione which can cause sickness and or death in stock such as horses, cattle, sheep and pigs. * However, the toxic oil is not without its uses and Māori discovered that by rubbing the leaves on their skin it works as an excellent insect repellant for mosquitoes and sandflies. Early farmers even used it as a sheepdip – covering their sheep in the oil to help ward off parasites.
The importance of Ngaio in Māori culture is underscored by The Legend of Rona and the Moon which interprets the image formed by the craters of the moon as a female figure holding a Ngaio tree. For more information on Māori plant use, refer to Landcare Research’s Ngaio page.