Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 17

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Picturesque New Zealand by David Paul Gooding
Chapter XVII

CHAPTER XVII

Wonderful Forests—The Strangling Rata and the Lordly Kauri—The Flaming Pohutukawa—Cabbage Trees—The Bowing Toitoi.

The scenic charms of New Zealand are attributable in a large degree to the wonderful wealth of flora with which this land is blest. New Zealand is one of the most remarkable botanical regions of the world; so wonderful, indeed, that in his division of the earth into fourteen botanical districts, one celebrated scientist accords New Zealand twelfth place.

Aotearoa is indeed a prolific land. In it are fourteen hundred different flowering plants, and two thirds of them are found in no other part of the world. Its forests, perpetually green, are massed in many places with brilliant flowers sometimes so nearly the color of trees that they are almost invisible. From tussock plain to Alpine heights beautiful blossoms brighten the traveler's way. Here the fern is so common that it has become an emblem of the country. Here flourish the latticed nikau, southernmost of the palm family, and the greatest of forest parasites, the tree-strangling rata. Here are plants which suggest that New Zealand once extended to Melanesia and was a part of Australia; and there are other plants which suggest an ancient association with South America and sub-Antarctic regions.

New Zealand's forests are among the most beautiful and luxuriant in the world, but to lovers of autumn tints they have one detracting feature. They are everywhere and always green. In them is every shade of green, all suggestive of eternal spring. A few trees shed tinted leaves in winter, but the nearest approach to autumn colors which the average traveler sees is the tints of sword ferns on cliff faces and by mountain roads. But when the forests are in flower the vast expanses of green are brightened with scarlet, crimson, pink, yellow, and white. Then is seen the red of the pohutukawa, the rata, the puriri, and the mistletoe; the red and yellow of the kowhai, the creamy blossoms of the hinau, and the white of the ribbonwood and clematis.

Generally speaking. New Zealand has two classes of forest, mixed bush and beech. The mixed bush is wide-spread in both islands; the beech is found chiefly in the South Island. The first contains such a great variety of plants that as many as forty or fifty species of trees and shrubs have been found on one acre. In both classes of forest the average height of trees is from sixty to eighty feet; the maximum height is one hundred and fifty feet, in the mixed bush.

It is doubtful if forests more beautiful than the palm and fern-graced mixed bush can be found anywhere. In it trees and undergrowth thrive as in a tropical jungle. Beneath the masses of the small-leaved foliage of the larger trees is a dense growth of young trees struggling to force their way up to the sunlight. Under them all is a fairy carpet of delicate moss and moss ferns. In this grow the curious kidney fern, maidenhair ferns, various kinds of sword ferns, and many other kinds of ferns; for New Zealand has about one hundred and fifty varieties of ferns. Up every gully and canyon are groves and groups of tree ferns, and at intervals the trim fronds of the nikau shoot upward.

In all New Zealand there is not, perhaps, a more pleasing forest plant than the gracefully drooping tree fern. In its slender trunk, widely spreading fronds, and leaning propensity, it strongly resembles the cocoanut palm. In forest depths, where it grows best, it commonly attains a height of from twenty to thirty feet, and one that I cut down near Waihi was fifty-two feet long.

A worthy rival of the tree fern is the nikau palm. It is related to the eastern beetle nut, and is New Zealand's only palm. In the North Island it is very plentiful; southward it ranges as far as Dusky Sound. The nikau is from twenty to thirty feet high, and its fronds shoot up at a sharp angle from a trunk so smooth that birds cannot get a foothold on it. When the kaka, or wild parrot, seeks to gorge itself with the scarlet fruit growing in big clusters just beneath the branches, it has to hang head downward from the leaves. By the Maoris these leaves are woven into kits and baskets, and in woodsmen's camps they are often used as roofing.

Still more numerous than tree fern and palm are the parasites,—stranglers, creepers, and aerial marauders. Every tree sustains a climber or a mossy growth. Many of the largest succumb to the attacks of the greatest of them all, the rata {Metrosideros robusta), the second largest tree in New Zealand. This strangler grows in the North Island, where it reaches a height of from fifty to one hundred feet and an average diameter of from three to twelve feet. Although known chiefly as an epiphyte, it also grows without support, but in that form its growth is much slower and the matured tree is smaller. Its reddish wood, covered with furrowed, reddish-brown bark, is hard and heavy, and has great strength and durability.

In New Zealand forests there are parasites which completely cover the trunks of trees, but none of them hugs to death and entombs its benefactor as the rata does. The life of this parasite reads like a romance. The rata is not a climber, as many persons believe; it begins its deadly work above the ground. Here, for example, is a leafy lord of the forest that for hundreds of years has successfully resisted decay and the assaults of many tempests. One day a tiny seed, blown by the wind or carried by a bird, finds lodgment high in one of its forks. Germinating in a bed of vegetable mould, the seed produces a sprout. After a time the nourishment of the mould becomes insufficient for its needs, and then it begins to run down the tree. As it descends it throws out lateral tendrils; these in turn develop transverse tendrils, and soon all of them diverge to encircle the tree.

The great tree is doomed; it has been attacked by one greater than itself. It is to be choked, hugged, and smothered to death by the rata. Ultimately the rata itself becomes a large tree, and in time it completely incloses its victim and crushes out and absorbs its life. Then, with this dead and decaying tree as its heart, the rata proudly rears its massive head, even higher, sometimes, than did the one it conquered, and, like it, defies the fiercest tempest.

The lordliest tree in New Zealand forests is the kauri (Agathis australis). Yet in one respect the kauri's form does not partake of dignity; it is so thick as compared with its height and proportions of trunk and top that it is somewhat squatty. As a rule, about half the tree consists of top, a canopy of long limbs tipped with small bunches of foliage. The tree's average height is from eighty to one hundred feet, with a maximum of one hundred and fifty feet. The diameter of the gray trunks averages from four to twelve feet, although a maximum diameter of twenty-four feet has been found. The finest specimens are on high ground, and it is doubtful whether the tree ever flourished in swamps, as gum deposits suggest. It is more likely, say some investigators, that the gum swamps are subsided areas.

The kauri's age is unknown, estimates varying from hundreds to thousands of years. One tree five feet in diameter was estimated to be three hundred years old. At this rate many kauris have been growing more than a thousand years.

One of the finest objects in the North Island bush is the pohutukawa, the spray-swept tree. Like the

A GIANT KAURI

cocoanut palm, it thrives best near the sea, and seldom grows far from water. Bending seaward, the pohutukawa sweeps over until its immense, sprawling top is sometimes almost upside down. In many cases its overhanging branches are sprayed by the surf, and occasionally oysters collect on them. When blossoming, scarlet flowers with numerous slender stamens burst from myriad sheaves. Then for miles on beach and high on cliff, I have seen Maoriland's Christmas tree flaming against landscape and sky.

A hardy plant that is most common on low and swampy ground is the cabbage tree, or palm lily, which bears a white, sweet-scented flower. In New Zealand it has a wide range, and in places forms forests. Some species are from twenty to twenty-five feet high; others are so dwarfed as to be stemless. The limbs are all at the top of the tree, and at the end of each limb and its branches is a bunch of sword-like leaves resembling the spiky head of the pineapple plant. They are from one foot to three feet long, and in their centre grows a large cluster of white berries, which are relished by pigeons. A peculiarity of the leaves is their phosphorescence when decaying.

Perhaps no New Zealand plant is harder to kill than the cabbage tree, so named because settlers once ate its soft, immature heads as a substitute for cabbage. So tenacious is the soft wood that even its chips have taken root in damp soil. On it fire makes little impression. Pieces cut from living specimens cause little or no injury. And when the tree is cut down it grows again.

Outside its forests one of the most beautiful plants of New Zealand is the toitoi, or toetoe. It is similar to the Argentine pampas grass, and is by far the tallest grass in the Dominion. It grows in large bunches from six to ten feet high, and often its flower stalks are a yard higher. Nodding from each plant are a score or more of feathery-tipped stems, varying from light to dark yellow and brightening the darkest background. The toitoi's drooping plumes I have seen continually waving and bowing along marshy water-courses, in flax swamps, beside rivers, up small gullies where tea-tree and bracken fern divided the land, and on lonely hillsides in solitary clumps.