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New Zealand Plants and their Story

Chapter XI. — The Story of Some Common Plants—Continued

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Chapter XI.
The Story of Some Common Plants

Abundance of manuka—Tea-tree or ti-tree?—Various stations of manuka—The different species and forms of Leptospermum—Uses—The fuchsia as a deciduous tree—Object of leaf-fall—The species of Fuchsia—Construction of the flower—Contrivances for cross-fertilisation—The wood and its properties.

The Manuka.

The manuka of the Maori, the tea-tree of the colonist, and Leptospermum scoparium of the scientist, should also be well known to every reader. Unlike the plants already dealt with, it has not suffered loss at the hands of the white man, but, on the contrary, has become aggressive, and at the present moment occupies more territory than in the pre-European days. This is owing to its power of thriving on any kind of soil, wet or dry, to the great fertility and number of its seeds, and to its habit of blooming at an abnormally early age for a shrub. The blossoms are distinctly showy—a manuka heath in due season being a sheet of snowy whiteness.

The flowers have a five-lobed calyx, the tube of which is attached to the ovary. There are five spreading petals and a great number of stamens. The fruit is a woody capsule containing many seeds, most of which are unfertile.

This structure of the flower shows the shrub to belong to the same family as the myrtle and rata in New Zealand, while abroad it has relatives in the gum-trees of Australia and the clove and allspice of the tropics.

Its leaves are small and stiff, and, like those of the family in general, extremely aromatic. This property has led to their use as a substitute for tea by the enterprising pioneers, who would probably cloak the unpleasant taste by means of no small allowance of sugar. From this use the English name "tea-tree" has arisen, and through corrupt spelling the spurious Maori "ti-tree" has followed, a term beloved of journalists. Worse than this is the usage in South Otago, where, "plain for all eyes to see," is the legend "Ti-Tri" on a certain wayside station.

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Like the flax and cabbage-tree, the manuka grows equally well on faces of rocks, in swamps, and on dunes, while in the Hot-lakes District it occupies a more inhospitable station still—the ground charged with chemicals near the boiling pools; in fact, few plants can so adapt themselves to varying circumstances—an important matter when one is concerned with the origin of species. As an example, it may be mentioned that on the central mountains of Stewart Island, where the wind blows with an almost incredible velocity, the manuka has changed its habit altogether, and, instead of being an upright shrub, lies prostrate upon the ground, as a far-spreading mat, its branches even near their apices putting out roots and fastening it to the soil. So different is this from the usual habit of the plant that one could hardly believe it to belong to the same species, were it not for the fact that all kinds of intermediate wind-shorn stages exist within a few feet of one another (fig. 62).

Besides L. scoparium, there are at least two other species in New Zealand—one, the tree-manuka or kanuka, a common plant enough; and the other, L. Sinclairii, only recorded hitherto from the Three Kings and the Great Barrier Island. The tree-manuka is distinguished from the commoner species by its larger size and its smaller stalked flowers, which are crowded together in great profusion, while the latter has larger, unstalked, solitary flowers. Both are very variable; but the most interesting varieties are those of the common manuka, which exhibit more or less red in their petals. Some are actually bright crimson, at least four such having been found, according to the author's knowledge, in the wild state.

These crimson varieties make beautiful garden plants. One, called by gardeners L. Chapmani, has been in cultivation for many years. Another, also with a garden name (L. Nichollsii), of more vivid crimson, is still handsomer. This, although introduced only a year or two ago, has already become established in a few English gardens, and is perhaps better known there than in its native land.

None of these red varieties seem to come absolutely "true" from seed, so they must be grown from cuttings, which unfortunately do not root readily. The red colour is present not only in the flowers, but extends to the leaves, which in all these races of manuka are more or less of a purple hue.

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Fig. 62.—Effect of Wind on Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium). All in foreground is Manuka, as well as the taller plants.Lands Department.] [Photo, L. Cockayne.

Fig. 62.—Effect of Wind on Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium). All in foreground is Manuka, as well as the taller plants.
Lands Department.] [Photo, L. Cockayne.

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There is also a form of manuka with double white flowers which was discovered a few years ago by Mr. E. Phillips Turner, Inspector of Scenic Reserves, but it has hardly got into cultivation as yet.

The common species of manuka are not nearly so much cultivated in gardens as they deserve. Not only are they extremely beautiful when in flower, but they will grow well in any kind of soil. Young plants may be procured from any heath in abundance, or raised from seed, which germinates readily.

One of the mistletoes is very frequently parasitic on Leptospermum scoparium. It is a very small shrub with curious jointed stems, but no leaves. It rejoices, or perhaps the contrary rather, in the name, much bigger than itself, of Korthalsella salicornioides. When this parasite becomes too abundant, the drain on the "life-blood" of its host becomes too great, and the branch supporting the mistletoe, or even the shrub as a whole, will die.

The common manuka (L. scoparium) has not usually a trunk stout enough to be of much use commercially, but it affords excellent firewood. It is also frequently used for brush fences, for the walls of whares, and for brooms, while the long straight poles are valuable for various purposes in gardens.

The colour of the wood differs in the two species. This has led to L. scoparium being called "red" and L. ericoides"white" tea-tree. As the leaves of both species are distinctly aromatic, a fragrant oil, which might possess medicinal properties, could be distilled from them.

The timber of the white tea-tree (L. ericoides) is of greater value than is that of its smaller relative. It has been used for wheelwrights' work, house-blocks, piles for small jetties, and fencing purposes. It also is highly valued for firewood.

The genus Leptospermum is made up of about thirty species, extending from New Zealand in the south to the Malay Archipelago in the north, by way of Australia and New Caledonia. By far the greatest number of species are Australian.

The Native Fuchsia.

There is hardly a forest in New Zealand, either primeval or almost obliterated, where the native fuchsia, the kotukutuku of the Maoris, with its thick irregular trunk and hanging strips of brown and papery page 150bark, may not be seen. Should the time be winter, then will the tree be leafless; but if summer, then there will be abundance of soft, thin leaves, green above, but beneath pale and silvery.

The deciduous habit is very rare amongst New Zealand plants, being confined to two or three, for naked boughs in winter are in harmony with a cold and frozen soil, since roots cannot suck up water if it be too cold, and the presence of leaves under these circumstances would be worse than useless. But where the climate is mild and equable, as in this country, then there is no need for leaves to fall, since they can do their complex work more or less efficiently all the year round. The fall of the fuchsia's leaf was not unnoticed by those keen nature-students, the ancient Maoris. "Where wast thou at the fall of the kotukutuku?" would be demanded of the laggard who had been absent when his presence was urgently needed during that special season of labour, the planting of the kumara.

The genus Fuchsia derives its name from a German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs (Anglice, Fox), who lived during the early half of the sixteenth century. It contains more than fifty species, which, with the exception of three New-Zealanders, are all South Americans. From certain of these latter have been raised by the gardener's skill the large-flowered and brilliantly coloured varieties so popular in gardens.

The New Zealand species consist of the tree mentioned above (F. excorticata); a shrub, or at times a scrambling-liane (F. Colensoi); and a rather rare trailing or partly climbing sea-shore plant, found only in the north of Auckland, but not uncommon as an ornamental pot-plant (F. procumbens).The last is distinguished from the other two by its erect flowers and its very large and extremely handsome red berries.

The flowers of Fuchsia excorticata are produced very early in the year, and some even before the tree is in leaf. The calyx, green and unattractive in most flowers, forms here the conspicuous part of the blossom. Below, it is attached to the ovary; then it is constricted, and finally expanded into a funnel-shaped tube, which is divided at its margin into four acute segments. The colour is green and purple, but it soon fades into a dull red. The petals, four in number, are inconspicuous: they are inserted at the throat of the calyx. There are eight stamens. The style is slender and elongated, and terminates in a little knob, the stigma. The pollen is of a blue colour, and adds page 151to the attractiveness of the flower. It is also extremely viscid. Both stamens and style are very variable in length; and thereby hangs a tale, which as yet can be only half told.

This variability in length of style and stamens leads to there being three forms of flowers, which may be distinguished as—(a) the long-styled, where the stigma projects far beyond the mouth of the funnel, within which the stamens lie hidden; (b) the short-styled, where the filaments are long, and almost equal the quite short and but slightly projecting style; and (c) the mid-styled, which is a form intermediate between the other two.

These different forms of flower are not without an object. Experimentally it has been found that in many cases it is advantageous for a flower to be fertilised with pollen other than its own, and ample provision is made in nature for such cross-fertilisation,* as it is called. In the case of F. excorticata the pollen of the long-styled form is usually immature or wanting—in other words, the flower is a female one. On the contrary, the short-and mid-styled flowers produce an abundance of serviceable pollen. The transmission of the pollen from one flower to another, so frequently the work of insects or the wind, is here performed by birds, especially the bell-bird and tui, whose heads become dyed blue with the sticky pollen as they pass from blossom to blossom in their greedy eagerness for the honey therein contained. The birds' work in time becomes manifest, through the long-styled flowers producing berries; whereas the short-and mid-styled flowers appear to be incapable of fertilisation from their own pollen, and bear but few berries. The above are the general details as stated in the "Forest Flora"; but the whole matter requires fresh investigation, and especially experiments conducted regarding the powers of self-fertilisation of the short-and mid-styled flowers.

The fruits of the fuchsia are a favourite food of the pigeon and kaka, and the seeds are distributed far and wide by these birds. They are insipid, but not unpleasing, especially to a youthful palate. To the Maori they were a welcome change of diet in a country devoid of luscious fruits, and a special name, "konini," was applied to them.

The timber of the fuchsia is almost indestructible. It is extremely strong and tough, but the gnarled trunk is of little value commercially.

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It is, however, an ornamental wood, and can be used for inlaying and turnery. As a firewood its badness is almost incredible, and truly none but the newest of chums would dream of using it when camped in the forest. "Bucket-of-water wood," it has been termed; and the rather tall story goes how a trunk, which had been used for a back log to a fire for a whole year, upon being finally cast into the open air as worthless, put forth green shoots, and grew again into a tree!

As a garden plant F. excorticata is not unpleasing; but for a small garden F. Colensoi is more to be recommended. Neither species will tolerate much frost, although F. excorticata is abundant in the cold mountain districts of the South Island. There is a distinctly hand-some form with purple leaves; but this is rare, and only in cultivation in the gardens of one or two enthusiasts.

* See also Chapter III, re fertilisation of flowers.