Amazing Places

The "Lord of the Forest" Is a Massive Tree Known to Bring Visitors to Tears

As you step out of the dense undergrowth, the brush and saplings around you seem to bow in awe towards the lordly presence in the center of the clearing. You look up ... and up ... and up as you take in the majesty of Tāne Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest.

A Tree for the Ages

Sometimes a presence is so overwhelming that you just can't help but break down and cry. That's not an uncommon sight at Tāne Mahuta, the largest kauri tree in the world. Even an average kauri specimen is truly massive — the trees regularly exceed 16 feet (5 meters) around and grow to heights in excess of 100 feet (30 meters). There's a reason why any forest that has them is known as a kauri forest, regardless of whether they are the dominant species.

But the "Lord of the Forest," named after a Māori forest god, puts all of his neighbors to shame. This kauri is a staggering 50 feet (16 meters) around and reaches a height of 148 feet (45 meters). That's about as tall as a 14-story building. It takes a long time for a tree to reach that height, and Tāne Mahuta is estimated to be about 2,500 to 3,000 years old. That means it was a sapling when humans were first entering the Bronze Age.

Tāne Mahuta is alone in the rainforest, however. While the Lord of the Forest is easily the largest kauri tree in the world, its nearby neighbor Te Matua Ngahere, the "Father of the Forest," holds the record as the stoutest. It's 55 feet (17 meters) around. Some estimates place this behemoth at 4,000 years old, older than the earliest known alphabets. It's easy to see why these trees occupy such a central place in the cosmology of New Zealand.

Deep Roots

Besides their stunning appearance above ground, kauri trees set themselves apart with a uniquely shallow root network. Unlike many very large trees, which nourish themselves on mineral deposits deep beneath the ground, kauris extend thin tendrils along the surface and feed off of decomposing organic matter. But given their size, they also need something to hold them down, so they also have deep peg roots that don't gather any nutrients.

Unfortunately, that feeding system also leaves the giants vulnerable. In recent years, the trees have been suffering from a new disease known as kauri dieback. It's caused by outside contaminants seeping into those shallow roots, sometimes by wandering mammals and sometimes on the soles of visiting hikers. That's why, if you're going to visit either Tāne Mahuta or Te Matua Ngahere, you need to hose your shoes off first.

To discover all of the secrets our woody neighbors are hiding, check out "The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter" by Colin Tudge. It's free with a trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 19, 2018

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