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New Zealand Plants and their Story

Swamp Vegetation

page 109

Swamp Vegetation.

A journey on any of the New Zealand main lines shows the traveller that swamps are a very common feature of the landscape, for they can be recognised at a glance by the dense growth of phormium or raupo (Typha angustifolia) and by those most curious plants, the niggerheads (Carex secta). Formerly, too, the scene was enlivened by that fine bird, the pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), gay with red legs and bill and blue breast. Before the days of settlement these swamps were much more extensive, but some of those reported as being undrainable by-the early surveyors now bear rich crops of grain or "roots."

Besides the New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and the raupo (Typha angustifolia) many other plants occur in swamps. The manuka has been mentioned in an earlier article. Other arborescent growths are the palm-lily (Cordyline australis) and Coprosma propinqua. Very characteristic is the niggerhead (Carex secta), a species of sedge which builds for itself tall and stout "trunks" out of its dead roots and root-stocks, from the summit of which, like shock-heads of hair, the long leaves droop. In such a position the plant is raised high above the water of the swamp, having thus made for itself a dry position very much better for its well-being. On the "trunk" of the sedge, the fern Blechnum capense finds a congenial home, as well as some small native plants—e.g., the marsh - pennyworts, species of Hydrocotyle. Swamps are rich in several species of willow-herb, of which the beautiful Epilobium pallidiflorum and the very tall E. erectum need mention. Two buttercups, Ranunculus macropus and R. rivularis, are common, the latter being easily distinguished by its finely cut floating leaves. Here is also the home of the sedge family, to which the so-called "cutty-grasses" belong.

Swamps are of considerable economic importance in New Zealand. The manufacture of fibre from phormium— "New Zealand hemp," as it is now called—has become one of the staple industries of the Dominion. At present P. tenax is not cultivated, except for ornamental purposes, the wild supply being sufficient. But this will not last for ever. As the swamps are drained, the supply of flax diminishes. The old Maoris were experts in its manufacture, and recognised varieties much more suitable for their mats, &c., than the rank and file of the flax-plants. To such they gave special names. Now what the uninstructed Maori did could be performed much more thoroughly by page 110modern science. We live in the age of scientific plant-breeding. Day by day its importance is realised. Scientists are only now for the first time delving deeply into the mysteries of hybridisation. By scientific breeding, the sugar-beet has had its sugar-content increased more than 10 per cent.; and there seems no reason why the fibre-content of phormium, both as to quantity and especially as to quality, should not be augmented, and pedigree breeds of our "flax" come into cultivation.