Pseudopanax crassifolius is endemic to New Zealand, widespread and common. Found in lowland to lower mountain forest and scrubland up to 750m a.s.l. Also called Lancewood, it tends to grow on dry exposed sites. In the forests, it’s a pioneer. One of the first plants to colonise a new space in the woods when an opportunity arises such as a new clearing in the canopy. In Canterbury, we find it in all sorts of podocarp forests. often found in plant communities that include but are not limited to Podocarpus totara, Pittosporum eugenioides, Leptospermum scoparium, and Kunzea robusta.
Pseudopanax crassifolius is a small tree with two distinct growth forms. This is called heteroblasty. It starts life as a small tree with very thin rigid leaves with a serrated edge before changing to an adult form once it gets over 6 metres. The juvenile form, which lasts for between 15 and 20 years, is easily recognized. The leaves are stiff and leathery with a prominent central rib, about 1 cm wide and up to 1 m long with irregular teeth, all growing downwards from an unbranched central stem. The young trunk has characteristic vertical swollen ridges.
As the tree grows, it drops its lower leaves. At a height in excess of 2m, it makes the gradual transition to its adult form. The stem begins to thicken and branch, producing a bushy top. The leaves become shorter, broaden and soften and assume a more horizontal orientation. Finally, it becomes a comparatively conventional lollipop-shaped canopy of fairly plain, dark green leaves.
Pseudopanax crassifolius is dioecious (having separate male and female plants). It flowers from January to April with clusters of tiny light green to pale yellow flowers that are pollinated by insects. These are followed soon after by fruit that turns dark purple when ripe. Only the mature tree produces fruit. The fruits are an important food source for whitehead, tūī and kererū.
Closely related is Pseudopanax ferox, the toothed lancewood. They are similar except the leaves of P. ferox are more abundant and severely toothed, resembling remotely a bandsaw blade.
For more information on plant communities, we recommend DOC’s publication Native Plant Communities of the Canterbury Plains.