Three places to walk amongst the leathery mountain neinei
Forget a cabbage tree, nikau palm or stunted beech tree; the real ‘Dr Seuss’ tree of New Zealand is the mountain neinei.
Growing at high altitude, often in the few hundred metres below the natural bushline, this stubby tree has an unmistakable form: a shaggy trunk with peeling bark, a multi-branched candelabra-like form, and tough, leathery leaves that grow in tufts. The leaves, khaki green but tinged with rusty red, shed easily and often form a dense layer underneath – wonderful to slide down, but hell to climb up.
To add to its tropical appearance, in summer the mountain neinei produces a flower shaped a bit like a pineapple. Dr Seuss couldn’t have created a more unlikely plant to grace a chilly New Zealand mountain slope.
The first time I remember seeing mountain neinei was on a tramp to Mt Arthur. The track led through an entrancing grove of the trees, and I remember enjoying the experience of walking through them almost as much as reaching the marble tops of the mountain ahead.
Mountain neinei (Dracophyllum traversii) is the largest of several species of Dracophyllum – or grass tree – native to New Zealand, and it grows on mountains in the wetter parts of the North Island, the northern half of the South Island, and as far south as the Jackson River on the West Coast.
Pirongia Mountain, Pirongia Forest Park
Mountain neinei grows in several places on the summit of Mt Pirongia. The most direct route to the mountain summit is via the Tirohanga Track, which begins from Corcoran Road. From the summit, an interesting alternative is to descend the Mahaukura Track, which passes though an area of mountain neinei.
Mt Arthur Track, Kahurangi National Park
From Flora Saddle, this well-graded, benched track climbs gently towards Mt Arthur Hut and the tops beyond. It’s an ideal introduction to tramping for beginners or family groups, with the added delight of the large grove of mountain neinei en route.
Kelly Tops, Arthur’s Pass National Park
Once, after traversing the Kelly Range, I had a great slide down a long slope of mountain neinei leaves towards Hunt Saddle. It was pleasingly fast going for off-track travel. Others, headed in the uphill direction, have found the bush bashing much slower going. It’s on this southwestern slope of the Kelly Range that particularly large stands of mountain neinei grow, but trampers will observe some on the main track up to Carroll Hut too.