Gorse and pine: Wellington’s transitional landscapes

IMG_0489In my last two posts (here and here), I described my explorations of some of the remnants of native bush in the Wellington area. I originally thought of these remnants as ‘ghosts’ of the forest that covered much of the Wellington peninsula at the time of European settlement. But then, in the course of my explorations, I decided that this was not really a ghost story at all, but more of a story about nature, and cultures, and about interactions and adaptations.

After the first European settlers cleared the Wellington landscape in an astonishingly short space of time, they left a landscape that looked significantly different from Wellington today – one that was widely regarded as bleak and ugly, a city ringed with bare windswept hills.

Kelburn 1904

Bare hills in Kelburn, 1904 – see below for ref

Most of the native forest had been cleared by the late 1860s, but new vegetation soon began to appear, much of which was introduced by early settlers and still dominates parts of the Wellington landscape, even though native bush is steadily returning.

Pohutukawa, Mariri Rd

Pohutukawa, Mariri Rd

I decided I would explore this new and to some extent transitional landscape, starting off on Mariri Road in Kelburn, near the Botanic Gardens. The hill suburb of Kelburn was first developed at the beginning of the 20th century, and the new houses were exposed to high winds and dust. The Wellington Beautifying Society was set up to improve Wellington’s bleak suburbs and among other things, planted hundreds of pohutukawa trees along roadsides. Pohutukawa are native trees, of course, but do not grow naturally in Wellington. Two prominent members of the society, Charles and Maud Haines lived on Mariri Road and there are pohutukawa trees here in front of the 1930s Arts and Craft-style villas, that I’d like to think they planted.

At the end of Mariri Road, I go into the Botanic Gardens where I find myself in the Pinetum, which I’m always unsure how to pronounce – pine-tum which sounds a bit silly, or pin-ay-tum, which would sound even sillier if it was wrong. The Pinetum was created in 1992 and consists of a collection of small pine trees, many of which seem to have been planted by successive Governors-General. They don’t seem to be doing very well, which may be a reflection of the tree-planting techniques of the Queen’s representatives in New Zealand.

IMG_0485There are some much larger and older pine trees here too, at the end of the ridge, their knobbled trunks black against the sun and startling blue of the harbour, and there’s a memorial to James Hector, the first manager of the Botanic Gardens. When they were first established in 1869, the Botanic Gardens served multiple functions, the most important of which was to test out the economic potential of imported plants. There was a growing realisation that the New Zealand native forest was not a limitless resource (surprise!) and native trees grew too slowly to be cropped, as well as an urgent need for trees that could provide shelter in the now treeless plains of New Zealand.

Old photographs show that significant portions of the Gardens were planted with pine trees, and some of them are still here. There is a stand of pines at the end of the Magpie Lawn, and I find some more on the top of Druid’s Hill.

Botanic Gardens, 1908

Botanic Gardens, 1908 – see below for ref

Many of the pines that were trialled in the gardens were grown from seed sent from California, another ‘new world’ country, and are, of course, more recent members of the conifer family to which the ancient podocarps that were being felled belong . Trees from the species that grew well, such as radiata pine and macrocarpa, were subsequently planted all over New Zealand, and particularly the North Island. The pine trees that are grown for forestry today can apparently trace their ancestry back to the pine trees grown in the Botanic Gardens. It’s also interesting that the kaka (New Zealand native parrots) that have recently been reintroduced to Zealandia and have made themselves at home across the city, are causing serious damage to the ‘heritage’ pine trees in the Gardens. In other places in the Gardens, the relationship between imported and native seems more symbiotic, like this oak tree, covered in ferns.

Fern-covered oak tree, Botanic Gardens

Fern-covered oak tree, Botanic Gardens

I leave the Botanic Gardens, cross Glenmore Street and head up Tinakori Hill. When European settlers arrived, the lower slopes of Tinakori Hill were cultivated by Māori, but the slopes above the cultivations were covered in tall trees, described by Walter Mantell in 1850: ‘there are trees a hundred feet or more high, some most magnificent some covered with the gorgeous flowers of our crimson myrtle…Some trees six men could not span.’

Tinakori Hill, along with the other hills in the Town Belt, was quickly cleared and used initially for grazing, but introduced gorse and broom quickly began to spread across the pasture. The town belt started to be planted with pine trees from the late 1870s onwards, with many planted by unemployed men during the 1930s depression.

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I’m following the Northern Walkway up Tinakori Hill, zig-zagging up through low level regenerating bush, until I enter the pines. We’ve had a lot of heavy rain recently and the trees smell humussy and organic, my footsteps muffled by a thick layer of orange pine needles. It’s an almost windless day, but the tall pines up above me are still swaying gently. At the side of the path, fallen and felled trees have been left to rot. The pines are falling down. Every time there is a storm, more come down. When I first arrived in Wellington, the slopes of Tinakori Hill were littered with fallen trees in the aftermath of a storm in 2004. Eventually the pines on the town belt will be gone.

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The temporary nature of this Wellington landscape is reinforced by the dense native bush that is growing up among the trees here. This is in marked contrast to the pines on Johnson’s Hill, that I wrote about here, where nothing grows. Maybe the pine trees here on Tinakori Hill are a different species. It seems odd either way that the pine trees aren’t regenerating themselves, but just growing old and falling down. I will miss the town belt pines. In the absence of the native podocarps that will take hundreds of years to regrow, they are our only tall trees.

IMG_0522Through the trees, I can see the harbour, and the piles and piles of orange logs waiting to be shipped, the felled progeny of the pines in the Botanic Gardens. Pinus radiata was initially considered worthless except for firewood, but now we build our houses with it.

The Northern Walkway brings me out in Wadestown and from here I walk down through Trelissick Park, where a regeneration project has been restoring the native bush around the Kaiwharawhara stream, and out into Crofton Downs. I walk up the road to Ngaio and then cut up Awarua Road towards the Skyline Walkway. At the end of Awarua Road, the Bells Track takes me through another bush regeneration project, but it quickly gives out to gorse. There is gorse everywhere, covering the sides of the ridgeline as far as I can see in either direction.

Gorse, also known as furze, was introduced by early settlers for use as quick-growing and dense hedging. Justice H S Chapman, an early farmer in Karori, wrote lovingly of the gorse bushes he was nurturing “I have two little furze bushes in my garden. They are about as big as this letter and are a great treasure.” Unfortunately, as I noted above, gorse took rather too well to conditions in New Zealand.

Gorse-covered hills, Eastbourne

Gorse-covered hills, Eastbourne

There seems to be nothing growing here but gorse, but as I climb up towards the ridge I notice native meuhlenbeckia and manuka growing amongst it. And at the top, there is more meuhlenbeckia than gorse, sculpted into contortions by the wind.

Up here on the ridgeline the view is spectacular in the late afternoon sun, with sea on three sides of me. I look over the folded hills of the Ohariu valley, and beyond them the South Island. To my left the ridgeline curves around to the distant radome. Lines of pylons stretch across the hills towards the wind turbines beyond Karori. Bare hills, pylons, turbines. Exhilarating.

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I stop for a snack, sitting on rocks covered in miniature forests of lichen. The dried seed heads of the grass flutter in the breeze like feathers. I’ve written before about the sharp divide in New Zealand between ‘pristine’ protected land and modified landscapes that are mostly unloved and exploited mostly for farming and forestry. This in in contrast to Europe for example, where most landscapes are modified to some degree. Furthermore, New Zealand’s non-pristine landscapes are generally off-limits, privately owned with no rights of access. Even if we wanted to love them, we can mostly only look at them from the road.

But then, I wonder if Wellington is to some extent an exception to this. Early settlers realised fairly early on that Wellington’s hills and climate made it next to useless for farming, and even the more fertile areas such as the Hutt Valley, were eventually suburbanised. Many of the hills are public reserve land to which the bush is returning, helped in many places by an amazing number of volunteer groups. The reserve land, and even the privately-owned land near the city is threaded with a network of well-used paths. The land that the skyline track runs through is still farmed, but there are only a handful of animals grazing up here.

I look over at Wilton and Northland, on the other side of Tinakori Hill to where I was walking earlier. Houses here might have been surrounded by bare exposed land when they were built, but now, they are nestled in greenery, probably mostly native bush. Wellington’s climate means that bush grows here more easily than many imported plants and the steep gardens in many hill suburbs in particular, means you would have to be a determined gardener to grow anything deliberately. Even the gorse, it seems, acts as a nursery, sheltering native plants until they grow tall enough to withstand the weather.

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All the same, it’s hard to imagine that these exposed hilltops could ever be covered with the sort of bush that once grew here. Maybe over time, the bush will gradually creep up the slopes, emerging from the gorse. But then I start to get all apocalyptic, because Wellington always seems a bit transitional and temporary to me anyway, and I imagine it in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake, or some terrible pandemic, the native trees pushing their way through abandoned houses made of flimsy radiata pine.

References
Bagge Michael L S (2014) Valuable ally or invading army? The ambivalence of gorse in New Zealand 1835-1900, Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network
Knight C (2014) Gorse: a prickly subject
Shepherd W and Cook W (1988) The Botanic Garden, Wellington: A New Zealand History 1840 – 1987
Shepherd W (2000) Wellington’s Heritage: Plants, Gardens and Landscape
Smedley B (1980) Homewood and its families: a story of Wellington
Te Ara Online Encyclopedia, Tinakori Hill  
Information boards in Botanic Gardens, Otari Wilton Bush, and Zealandia

Photo references

City expansion under difficulties a panoramic view of Kelburn (1904) Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19040915-8-2

Botanical Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand, 1908, by Muir & Moodie.  Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.  Te Papa (PS.001347)