11 July 2015

Auckland trees: some historic beauties

Here in Auckland city, unless they were lucky enough to survive European settlement – and, sadly, very few did – most native trees don’t have a long history, as they were only planted after settlement got underway with the arrival of the first immigrant ships in the 1840s and 1850s. For exactly the same reason there are very few exotic trees in Auckland that are more than 160 years old. So, for my last tree blog before I depart New Zealand’s shores I thought I’d share a few of the local trees that are older than most.

Coral tree (Erythrina caffra), Old Government House, Auckland central
Although some sources say New Zealand Governor Sir George Grey planted this South African coral tree in the 1850s it seems more plausible that it was planted in 1861 or soon after, as that was the year Grey came to Auckland from South Africa to begin his second term as Governor and he lived in Old Government House, in front of which this tree stands, until parliament was moved to Wellington in 1864.

The tree’s identification has been the subject of some debate over the years: in his 1971 unpublished report 'Historic and Notable Trees: Northland and Auckland', S. W. Burstall labelled it Erythrina phlebocarpa, and the plaque at the base of the tree names it Erythrina indica. However, the Notable Tree Register says they’re both wrong and it is, in fact, an Erythrina caffra, also known as a coast coral tree, a Kaffir boom, and a South African coral tree. Whatever its name, it is a magnificent specimen, tall, elegant and most beautiful when covered with bright orange flowers in the springtime.

English oaks (Quercus robur), Old Government House, Auckland central
Also at Old Government House, in the grounds that border Waterloo Quadrant and Princes Street, can be found many large old oak trees. Burstall says the largest of these were planted in the early 1850s by First Secretary to Governor Hobson, George Graham but the origin of the acorns from which they were grown is much disputed. Burstall states that they ‘were collected from the Royal Oak, Boscabel, Shropshire, in which Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester, or from the Great Forest of Windsor. Some oaks are said to have been planted from seed given to Bishop Selwyn by Queen Victoria’. However, in her book Notable Trees of Auckland, Elizabeth Francke reports as follows:

Writing in 1885, James Baber stated that the acorns were sent from Sydney. Another source gives Herne’s Oak, the famous tree of Windsor Great Park, as [the] parent, while yet another claims that the acorns came from Queen Anne’s oak, also of Windsor Great Park.

Regardless of their origin, they are now magnificent trees. I like what early New Zealand writer and intellectual Edward Tregear had to say about them in a letter to the editor of the Evening Post (28 December 1894, page 4):

When a young man, I saw oak trees planted in the grounds of Government House at Auckland. What summer visions of beauty are those trees now. Thirty years ago the townships of Cambridge and Ngaruawahia, in the Waikato, were mere desolate wastes of sand. Now they are homes of loveliness, with their avenues of umbrageous greenery and whispering aisles of refuge from the glare of day. Benedictions on the heads of men who plant trees. There is an unselfishness in planting trees that others may enjoy the shade which is a moral strengthening and a mental refreshment, lifting us awhile out of the sickening struggle of the daily life of the nineteenth century. "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." I am, &c Edward Tregear.

Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), Parnell Rose Gardens, Parnell
This sprawling tree is acclaimed as the largest pohutukawa in Auckland but, as with so many of our old trees, its age is uncertain. Burstall reckoned it was planted in the 1850s and listed three notable early Aucklanders as potential planters, Sir William Swainson, Robert Gillies or Sir Logan Campbell, all of whom resided on this piece of land in the early years of Auckland’s settlement.

However, there is also a possibility that the tree pre-dates European settlement, as Logan Campbell’s obituary in the Auckland Star (‘The Father of Auckland’, 22 June 1912, page 5) seems to suggest: ‘With his own axe he cut down the scrub and hewed out paths along the edge of the cliff from one side round to the other. He planted macrocarpa, Pinus insignis, and other shade trees, and here and there left native trees to themselves.’

Firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus), Gillies Ave, Epsom
This is one of several trees in the Auckland suburb of Epsom that were probably planted by G. B. Owens around 1865 and, according to the expert, Burstall, this is the largest firewheel tree in New Zealand. It’s an Australian native, a member of the protea family. The Firewheel is a shapely evergreen tree but its most stunning feature is the flower that gives it its name, a pendant umbel of bright red stalks that looks more like a Christmas tree decoration than a blossom.

Sadly, this particular tree appears unloved and under-appreciated, perched rather precariously next to the driveway of a block of flats. My apologies for the poor photos – the block of flats sits on a very busy road so it was difficult to get a better angle on the tree.

Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Owens Road, Epsom
These two stately trees are also reputed to be some of Owen’s 1860s’ plantings, as he originally owned this particular property, and the road is named after this prominent early settler. English-born George Burgoyne Owen (1819-1893) was an apprentice in the Sheffield cutlery trade before sailing first to Sydney and then to Auckland in the 1840s. According to his obituary in the New Zealand Herald (25 September 1893, page 5), Owen purchased a cutter, the Saucy Kate, and ‘ran her in the coastal trade (principally kauri gum)’, before settling in Auckland as a storekeeper and general merchant. We are fortunate indeed that he was an enthusiastic tree planter: many of the large old trees in this suburb were planted by him.

Norfolk pine (Araucaria heterophylla), St Stephens Ave, Parnell
The last in this short list of Auckland’s historic trees is also the tallest. It was 102 feet tall in 1970 so is probably considerably taller now. It’s located in the grounds of Selwyn Court (formerly Bishops’ Court), home to Bishop George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878), who served as the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand from 1841 to 1858 and as Primate of New Zealand from 1858 to 1868. Our expert, Burstall, reckons this stately Norfolk pine looks old enough to date from the very early church days in Auckland so may well have been planted by Bishop Selwyn himself (or, at least, by his gardener).

A. W. Burstall, ‘Historic and Notable Trees: Northland and Auckland’, Forest Research Institute, 1971

Elizabeth Francke, Notable Trees of Auckland, The Tree Council, Auckland, 2003

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