The Northern Rata is a hardy cousin of the Pohutukawa, and is a large specimen forest tree. It grows slowly to four metres at 10 years, and can reach 40 metres at maturity. It usually begins as an epiphyte in the forest, later sending roots to the ground while clinging to its host tree for support. As the Rata develops independent strength it sends roots sideways creating a lattice work which fuses, thickens, and eventually encases the host tree. To fully achieve this takes many years and the host has usually died by this stage, most likely of old age, rather than popularly believed strangulation.
M. robusta flowers in midsummer boasting orange-red to deep crimson, and occasionally pinkish, blooms from November-January. They are rich in nectar which nectivorous birds such as tui, bellbird and kaka, as well as insects and bees greedily seek out. The woody fruit ripens in May freeing wispy seeds to the breeze. Northern Rata’s dark green foliage is comprised of smallish leather-like leaves and forms a loose parasol-like canopy.
Widespread from the Three Kings Islands over much of the country, Northern Rata has sustained damage from possums which can kill a mature tree within three years, the felling of forests, hybridisation with Pohutukawa, firewood sourcing, and natural stressors, which have significantly diminished its prevalence.
Maori used the vines to bind fences, construction framing and platforms, and in earlier years, settlers used it for fence and stock posts, stockyards, ship-building, wheelwright work, cabinetmaking, machine beds, bearings, bridges, wharves, construction work, railway carriages and other types of conveyances. Many applications were found for Rata in Maori and early medicine.