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The Vegetation of New Zealand



In Part II of this book an attempt has been made to paint a picture both of the primeval plant-covering of New Zealand and of those communities as yet but slightly modified by the action of man. This Part, on the contrary, treats of that greatly altered or entirely new vegetation which now occupies so much of the land, and some of the fundamental causes are discussed which have operated in bringing about the vast difference between the New Zealand of 1769 and that of 1927. On this intensely interesting subject a good deal has been written, some of which contains important data and luminous suggestions, but, on the other hand, erroneous statements are even yet widely accepted as truths and misconceptions have crept into authoritative scientific writings1.

At the time of Cook's first visit in 1769–70, except for changes wrought by the aborigenes, the vegetation almost everywhere was intact and the flora contained no aliens. To what extent the native race had altered primitive New Zealand it is not possible to determine, but although the neolithic population may have reached 200 000, its power to damage the vegetation was slight2. Here and there clearings for cultivations were made in forest, shrubland or heath, and though new combinations of indig-

1 1) A. R. Wallage (1889:15) writes, "In New Zealand tnere are more than 250 species of naturalised European plants, more than 100 species of which have spread widely over the country often displacing the native vegetation", and on pp. 28, 29 it is stated that, "in New Zealand (white clover) is exterminating many native species, including even the native flax (Phormium tenax)."

2 Even now, in the Urewera Country (EC), where the Maori still maintains, in large measure, his primitive conditions, except in the wider valleys and, to a limited extent on the adjacent slopes, the vegetation is primeval, notwithstanding the people possessing agricultural implements and their grassing areas by means of "bush-burns" and subsequent grazing, as described further on.

page 353enous species would arise on the cleared ground when abandoned, they would hardly be of a permanent character but in time would revert to the original plant-covering1. On the other hand, judging from the observations of Banks2, the Maori appears to have made considerable use of fire for clearing forest &c, so that certain apparently primeval areas, especially Pteridium heath and Leptospermum shrubland, and perhaps tussock-grassland, to some extent, may have originated from ancient forest-fires. But when the vast areas of undoubtedly virgin forest that only now are vanishing are borne in mind, it is clear that the aborigenes brought about no changes of moment, and that it was a truly, primeval scene that met the gaze of the early botanists, How great the difference in much of the present plant-covering is clearly brought home from the statistics in Chapter III and the details in Chapter II of this section, which show that the greater part of the lowlands has now a plant-covering resembling that of Europe rather than New Zealand, and that there are also wild associations of recent origin composed altogether of indigenous plants. Thus, as well as an indigenous flora, there is a second composed of introduced species, some of which are so well suited to their new environment that they flourish side by side with indigenous plants making new associations, or, in other cases, the exotics, thanks generally to the direct influence of man, have formed pure communities. In other words, a new vegetation and flora are being evolved and various stages of the process everywhere afford invaluable material for research.

1 1) Rutland (1901: 324–326) shows how Podocarpus totara invaded abandoned Maori clearings and considers that much of the forest on the shores of Pelorus Sound is a regrowth. Various varieties of Phormium tenax were frequently cultivated, and Colenso describes (1881: 19) how he has seen remains of old plantations miles away from any Maori dwelling. Also some of the groves of Corynocarpus laevigata are due to the planting of that tree.

2 "Here we saw many great smokes, some near the beach, others between the hills, some very far within land, which we looked upon as great indications of a populous country"… "At night we were off Hawke's Bay and saw two monstrous fires inland on the hills. We are now inclined to think that these, and most if not all the great fires that we have seen, are made for the convenience of clearing the land for tillage" (Banks 1896: 183, 189). But such fires would be in heath or shrubland, since it is impossible to burn standing virgin subtropical rain-forest.