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Forest Vines to Snow Tussocks: The Story of New Zealand Plants


Ferns grow everywhere, clinging like ivy to the rough stems, festooning them with elegant fronds, webbing them with veils of delicate rhizome, overrunning fallen boughs, drooping long languorous growths from matted clumps overhead. Rooted in massy forks grow epiphytes such as Griselinia lucida and huge rookeries of pineapple-like Astelia. Mats of sweet-scented orchids cling with a plexus of roots to suitable sites. There is a luxuriance of growth due to the great rainfall and the large number of hours of sunshine, almost unknown elsewhere. The edges of the forest exhibit a still more voluptuous profusion of tangled growth—clematis, rubus, vine, parsonsia, and the native passion-flower competing in the ampler light. Such a forest as this, typical of the North Island, is in truth tropical in all except degree, in all except latitude … an exuberance of life prevails, a luxuriance unknown elsewhere save in the true tropical zone.

This quotation from Guthrie-Smith's Tutira19 tends to purple Victorian prose perhaps, but is typical of the reaction of European settlers in New Zealand to the lowland forest or 'bush' (Figs. 6, 7, 8), so unlike the forests of 'home'. A more professional but similar reaction comes in more recent times from a forester from the tropics.20

I was astonished to find on my arrival that one of the main types of indigenous forest is very similar to Malayan rain forest', far closer to the latter in its structure and appearance than to any type of European forest.

New Zealanders who have grown up with the 'bush' do not see it as unusual. The reason why visitors from comparable latitudes in the northern hemisphere are so taken by surprise is that they expect to find forests similar to those they grew up with: the mid-latitude deciduous forests and the higher latitude coniferous forests with their relatively few species, simple structure and general lack of specialised vines and epiphytes. Instead they find in the lowlands of New Zealand, particularly at lower northern latitudes, a forest which apparently exhibits all the features they had associated with, and perhaps observed page 28
Figure 7 Conifer broadleaf forest south of Kaitaia, northern North Island. The emergent trees on the ridge crest are mostly rimus (Dacrydium cupressinum).Photo: B. V. Sneddon.

Figure 7 Conifer broadleaf forest south of Kaitaia, northern North Island. The emergent trees on the ridge crest are mostly rimus (Dacrydium cupressinum).
Photo: B. V. Sneddon.

en route, in forests of the tropics. This being the case, in the following review, consideration of each of the features of mostly free standing plants of New Zealand's conifer broadleaf forest will be preceded by an outline of the comparable features in tropical rain forest.21 Forest plants which depend on trees for mechanical support (vines and epiphytes) or nutriment (parasites) will be considered in the next chapter.