Kauris and Cabbage Trees

I know embarassingly little about trees. I’m not sure why it has taken me travelling half way around the world to admit this, but it has. I guess I am just uber aware of it now because almost every Kiwi I meet, when pressed, can describe a good deal about the diversity and history of various types of native animals, plants, and yes–trees. If someone were to ask me about similar things in North America, or the U.S., I would probably just turn red and stutter out a completely generic and uninformative answer. Maybe, I would stumble through a quick listing of trees I remember from my time as a kid living in the Sandia Mountains just outside of Albuquerque: Pinon pines (these stuck in my memory because of the one year when copious amounts of tasty little pinon nuts littered the ground around our house), alligator juniper (so named because of the flaky, scale like bark resembling alligator skin, cool!) and a certain tree–I think it was a pine– that oozed a yellowish sap and gave off the faint aroma of vanilla.

I definitely wouldn’t be able to speak to the development of the landscape and the evolution of forests like these Kiwis can. One Kiwi, Ian, has been the most demonstrative tutor I’ve had on the subject of trees. Walking around his property with views of Point Wells, and Omaha Beach (a popular vacation spot for rich Aucklanders), Ian begins his lesson with the majestic Kauri tree (pronounced: cow-ree). The Kauri is the most famous of the New Zealand natives and as J.T. Salmon’s book, “The Native Trees of New Zealand,” tells me: it is one of the largest trees found anywhere in the world. Some Kauri have measured in at around 50 meters high and up to 17 meters around! One famous Kauri in the Waipoua forest is believed to be over 2,000 years old, incredible, huh?! The area where I am now (about 1 hour north of Auckland), in a village called Matakana, was once blanketed in Kauri forest. But, now the Kauri are scarce having been heavily logged at one time and very prized for their quality timber. Ian has been trying to reintroduce Kauri onto his property and explains to me that they are a tree that comes in during the second growth of a forest. As prairie or grassland progresses into forest the first growth here are trees such as the Manuka and Kanuka. Manuka have become increasingly familiar to me as I first heard of them through Manuka honey a delicious honey gathered from bees around flowering Manukas (similar to our idea of clover or blackberry honey in Nevada County, in NZ they have honey from flowering Manukas and from the infamous red flowered “New Zealand Christmas tree,” the pohutukawa). Most recently, I have been chopping up sections of felled Manuka for firewood. It is a good wood to burn because despite it being an evergreen it supposedly burns hot like a hardwood. Once Manukas start growing up through grass or pasture and become established the scene is ripe for Kauris to come into play. This cycle that plays out over any number of years is made visually aware to me as Ian leads me around his property and shows me examples of these various stages of forest development.

First, he points out the mostly Kikuyu pasture which for my education begins our timeline. He describes how he sprays a section of land with Roundup to kill the prolific Kikuyu, a grass that was introduced from Africa and relishes the friendly New Zealand climate. I must admit I cringe every time he talks about spraying with Roundup, but Ian claims it is necessary and the only thing that will kill the hardy Kikuyu (the most similar grass I can think of to it is Johnson grass. Both shoot rhizomes through the soil and can just dominate a landscape unless checked). The first growth after spraying will be a mix of weeds and tiny little Manuka seedlings. The Manuka eventually shade out the weeds and the first stage of creating a stable forest has begun. Pretty incredible!

Another tree I have found intriguing is the curiously named cabbage tree. Now, I’m no sucker, I know cabbages don’t grow on trees. So, what’s the deal with the cabbage tree? A little genealogy: five species of trees from the family agavaceae (genus: cordyline) are native to New Zealand and are collectively known as cabbage trees. The only reason this Latin nonsense is interesting is because this family also includes the New Zealand flax, agave, and yucca. And to me this is what a cabbage tree looks like: a loopy trunk with a yucca (or two) stuck on top. It is quite spiky and more than a little Dr. Seussian. My awesome host a while back, Pip, told me some lore about the origin of the name. Apparently, the inside core of the spiky tops of the trees contains a pulpy substance that, though not particularly palatable, is edible. This could explain the association with the kind of bland, but edible, sometimes hard cabbage.

This tree kind of got me on a Dr. Seus kick and I even bought a copy of “The Lorax.” Great read by the way, but in honor of The Lorax a little verse:

The Kauri

Up above Matakana in the green covered hills
Lived a man they called Ian, in a house with no frills

His mission was simple, it was more like a plan
To bring back all the trees that once covered this land

He’d grow Manuka, Kanuka, pohutukawa as well
That part of his plan, yes it would be swell!

But his love, his one love, was the great kauri tree
Which had covered this area, as far as you can see

The kauri grows straight, up up up it will go
Then grows out and is wider than most trees you know

It was prized for its timber and so it did fall
But the people who took it, they didn’t take all

Ian was left with a few kauri trees, and a few kauri seeds
All that any man needs

To grow a great forest, don’t laugh now you hear?
Because this great forest will take many a year

But who will take over when Ian is gone?
Will it be you making sure the great kauri lives on?

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andi
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 16:18:35

    You should’ve taken Ange with you! She knows a lot about trees!

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  2. Ange
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 02:02:42

    Sorry I haven’t commented earlier! That is very cool that the general public in New Zealand are so much more in touch with their natural resources and natural history. I think that people in the US were probably closer to that about 2 generations ago when we had to know and use our natural resources every day, but we have become so disconnected that no one even cares anymore. But let’s not get me started here because this could go onnnnnnn…

    I am stoked that you got to work on a farm with some active forest management and especially restoration forestry! Super cool!! Can’t wait to hear more about this host experience in person at some point. I have always wanted to go to NZ and study trees. My boss estimated that forestry makes up about 30% of New Zealand’s GDP! Amazing huh? That’s more than the amount of Canada’s GDP made up of hockey, haha.

    Don’t let those Kiwis and their books fool you though- remember that the tallest (redwood), most massive (sequoia) , and oldest (bristlecone pine) trees in the world all call California home 😉 Haha, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. And for your own bank of native natural history knowledge, that vanilla-smelling pine you remember from NM is a Jefferey pine. Now if you could cross a Jeffery pine with a cabbage tree (which I think is not really a tree because of it’s physiology and taxonomic association, but neither here nor there), that would be a delectable treat!

    Miss you, Leda!

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  3. Ange
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 02:07:03

    p.s. don’t quote me on that GDP estimation. Could be more of an exaggeration fueled by a few too many drinks by the boss man, haha!

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  4. Ange
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 02:09:34

    ok, never mind, a quick search reveals that forestry is more like 3% of NZ’s GDP, but STILL more than the hockey sector in Canada (2%)!!!

    http://www.maf.govt.nz/forestry

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