Tōtaraused to be a dominant tree in lowland and montane forests, but in modern times it's less prevalent.
There are separate male and femaletōtara– females produce fruit that takes a year to ripen to a red-coloured fruitwhich is edible and quite sweet. The male plants have pollen cones which develop in spring.
The distinctive red timber has two layers. The outer, sap-wood (calledtaiteaby Māori) is white and soon decays, andnear the centre is thetaikākāwhich is harder and resistant to rot.
The two layers of thetōtaraare referenced in the whakataukī "Ruia taitea, kia tū ko taikaka anake (shake off the sap-wood and let the heart-wood only stand).
Māori usedtōtarawhen crafting waka, building and carving, and it is still used as a preferred carving timber.
European settlers continued to use it for building purposes (houses, bridges, fences) when they arrived in New Zealand.
Smoke from the wood was used to treat skin conditions, and inner bark boiled withmānukawas used as a tonic toreduce fever.
Tōtaraleaves were infused and used by bushmen to cure stomach troubles.