Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Plants and their Story

The Subantarctic Vegetation

The Subantarctic Vegetation.

Lands of mist and sleet and hail, of fierce squalls born in the icy south; cruel, rock-bound coasts, scenes of brave men's death, or of fierce struggles with the angry sea; lands of brown hills, enclosed by thick woods, weird and grotesque—in very truth goblin forests, patrolled and sentinelled by uncouth monsters of the deep: such impression may our far-off subantarctic islands give at first.

A closer view, and scenes more pleasing greet the traveller. Despite the ever-present gales, fields of magnificent flowers clothe the hills in summer-time. Within the forest, beneath the thick entanglement of gnarled and twisted branches of the trees, multitudes of ferns spread out their feathery fronds into the dim light. The knotted trunks, the fallen trees, the uneven ground, all are thickly covered with a mantle most delicate of translucent filmy ferns. Mounds of exquisite liverworts of many species adorn both forest-floor and boles of trees. Thickets of shrubs abound. All is one close mass of vegetation, save where long, bare paths of dark peat lead from the dim recesses of the forest, along which a startled sea-lion may glide, fearful of the intruder, or one at bay greet him with angry roar and open jaws.

It is in the Auckland Islands alone of these lonely lands that any true forests are to be found. In Campbell Island trees are altogether absent; densely growing shrubs clothe the lower slopes and fill the gullies. In Antipodes a few lines or patches of shrubs show as dark spots amongst the all-prevailing tussock, while on Macquarie Island woody plants are quite wanting.

page 115
Fig. 54.— Interior of Rata Forest of the Auckland Islands.Phill. Inst. of Canterbury.] [Photo, S. Page.

Fig. 54.— Interior of Rata Forest of the Auckland Islands.
Phill. Inst. of Canterbury.] [Photo, S. Page.

page 116

The forest of the Auckland Islands consists for the most part of the southern rata (Metrosideros lucida).The other associated trees and shrubs are the haumakoroa (Nothopanax simplex), the evilsmelling karamu (Coprosma foetidissima), the inaka (Dracophyllum longifolium), Coprosma ciliata, C. parviflora, Suttonia divaricata, and, where the forest changes into scrub, Cassinia Vauvilliersii. The extraordinary manner of growth of this society; the close, even foliage of its roof; the twisted, far-reaching branches, semi-prostrate and arching trunks, and consequent lowness of the trees, are plainly the expressions of the tempestuous climate—rigorous enough in many ways, but never really cold (fig. 54). Within the shelter of the forest quite other conditions exist, so here flourish those plants that love an atmosphere saturated with moisture. As for the affinities of the forest, they are subtropical and not subantarctic. Here, of all places, where a beech (Nothofagus) forest might be expected, it is absent.

In some few parts of these subantarctic islands—namely, on Ewing Island of the Auckland Group, to a limited extent on the north of Auckland Island itself, and especially on the Snares—are small woods of another character. These are composed of the truly magnificent daisy-tree (Olearia Lyallii), found only in these islands, but closely related to O. Colensoi of Stewart Island, the New Zealand Alps, and the North Island mountains. O. Lyallii has great leathery leaves, which are green on the upper surface but pure white beneath, thus affording a delightful contrast when they are stirred by the wind. Probably this society is a modified remnant of the ancient forest of that latitude and farther south, which during the great expansion southwards of New Zealand in later Tertiary times was driven into its present narrow limits by the invading and more vigorous rata forest of the north. The meadows of herbaceous plants, too, are possibly to be similarly accounted for—that is to say, they are a remnant of the subantarctic meadows of long ago.

On the Snares, mixed with O. Lyallii, is the rare and beautiful small tree, one of the shrubby groundsels (Senecio Stewartiae). Strange to say, though this plant also occurs farther to the north, it has not been found on Stewart Island proper, but only on some of the small islands in its vicinity.

Some of the seashore plants are very wonderful. Here, almost to high-water mark, comes a splendid tussock-grass, Poa foliosa, with broad green leaves. On the rocks, almost where the sea washes, page 117are large green cushions of Coldbanthus muscoides, hard as those of the vegetable-sheep; and near by will be frequently seen the shining green rosettes of a species of plantain (Plantago carnosa?). Close by, where the kelp heaves on the restless waters, swims, quite fearless of man, as it has done for ages, the little flightless duck. From the cliffs droop green draperies of a most strange pale-green, soft-leaved grass (Poa ramosissima), while their summits are crowned with the sweet-scented Veronica elliptica. On the flat rocks beneath stands, sentinel-like, the Auckland Island shag, conspicuous with its glistening black back, spotless white breast, and flesh-coloured feet; and accompanying it is the pretty little mackerel-gull, with dove-coloured back, white head and breast, and brilliant red legs and beak.

The herbaceous plants are the special glory of the islands. Sir Joseph Hooker has declared that outside the tropics no such floral display is to be seen in any area of the same size. The monarch of all is a majestic plant of the daisy family (Pleurophyllum speciosum), the genus being purely subantarctic, though related to the asters of gardens. The leaves are of great size, and all are corrugated. In colour and general appearance they somewhat resemble pale-green velvet or plush, and they are so arranged at times as to look like shallow goblets. These are striking enough; but when the beautiful purple flower-heads are raised high above the leaves, dozens at a time, side by side, the spectacle is magnificent. There are perhaps three other species of the same family. One (P. Hookeri), with silvery leaves just tinged with green, dotting the upland meadows as far as the eye can reach, is a charming-enough sight. But how intensified is the beauty when there are present in large numbers, and also in full bloom, a fine yellow buttercup (Ranunculus pinguis); gentians pink, violet, and crimson (Gentiana cerina); the blue Veronica Benthami; the gorgeous orange-coloured liliaceous plant Bulbinella Rossii; the prince of forget-me-nots, its blossoms ultramarine (Myosotis capitata); and mats of the stiff rosettes of Celmisia vernicosa, the leaves like polished greenstone, and bearing many fine flower-heads with purple centres and white rays. Other magnificent plants are two of the carrot family, with great masses of close-growing purple blossom (Aciphylla latifolia and A. antipoda), the former with leaves reaching to the middle of one's thigh; and a close ally Stilbocarpa polaris, whose massive creeping stem afforded a valuable food fox the unfortunate castaways of the "Dundonald."

page 118

The tussocks tank with the forest and the meadow as an astonishing feature of these islands. Their habit is that of the niggerhead described in Chapter VII. On Antipodes Island, and in some parts of the Auckland Group, they are in many places quite 4 ft. tall, and grow so closely that to make any progress at all one is compelled to walk upon their tops (see frontispiece). On Antipodes Island these tussocks take the place of arborescent growth, and it is curious to see the little parakeet peculiar to the island perched and swaying on the drooping grass-leaves. Where the tussocks are lower, the albatros rears its young, bringing daily the supply of food. Here, too, the baby birds, clad in downy robes of snowy whiteness, each seated on its cheese-shaped nest, brave for months the piercing antarctic blasts, until their time shall come to seek the white-topped waves and follow in the wake of the great ships.

Although Macquarie Island belongs to Tasmania, biology derides the claims of nations, and emphatically declares it to be three-fourths New Zealand and the rest Fuegian. This latter claim is specially emphasized by the immense cushions of Azorella Sclago, the Fuegian rival of our vegetable-sheep.

The Snares, the nearest to Stewart Island of the subantarctic group, do not contain nearly so many peculiar plants, though they have an Aciphylla and a species of Stilbocarpa not found elsewhere. They form, as might be expected, a connecting-link with Stewart Island.

Disappointment Island, in the Auckland Group, the scene of the terrible "Dundonald" wreck, is the home of countless mollymawks. Cast your eye over the dreary landscape, and you will see brown meadow dotted with white birds, and here and there patches of vivid green. This last arises from the presence of the antarctic burr (Acaena Sanguisorbae, var. antarctica).As the tussock, with its accompanying plants, is slowly but surely destroyed by the many generations of birds, this burr takes complete possession of the bare ground, thanks to its colonising-power, for the barbed fruits adhere to the feathers of the young birds, and so are spread broadcast. The burr is really quite a rare plant in the tussock meadow, and so we have a remarkable example of a plant originally of little importance becoming, in a virgin vegetation, virtually a weed. But tussock will again predominate, and gradual alternate destruction and rejuvenation of the vegetation will always be in progress—a natural rotation of crops indeed, thanks to the presence of mollymawks.

page 119
Fig. 55.— Penguins destroying Tussock Meadow. Low forest of Olearia Lyallii in the background, and tussocks. The Snares.Phil. Inst. of Canterbury.] [Photo, L. Cockyane.

Fig. 55.— Penguins destroying Tussock Meadow. Low forest of Olearia Lyallii in the background, and tussocks. The Snares.
Phil. Inst. of Canterbury.] [Photo, L. Cockyane.

page 120

There yet remain for mention the Bounty Islands. So far as plant-life goes, their description is easy. A few seaweeds are on the rocks, while, where the sea cannot reach, the glitter of their monumental granite is dimmed only here and there by the green stain of an alga, their sole land plant. During part of the year these desolate rocks are a scene of busy life. Penguins in countless hosts stand in close array from base to summit of the islands (fig. 55).* Furseals bask on the warm rock, which everywhere by them and by the feet of former penguins is polished smooth as glass. Here, too, the mollymawk makes its curious nest of penguin-quills and guano, and beneath the stones in this latter is teeming life of beetles, amphipods, and spiders.

* The photo represents a penguin colony on the Snares, not on the Bounties; but the general effect is similar.