Fun with plants - fantastical topiary at Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne

For the child in all of us, and a happy reminder of spring in Melbourne - lush greens and fantastical creatures by the entrance to the Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden in the Royal Botanical Gardens.  The topiary shapes were (I think) made with Muelenbeckia complexa or pohuehue - our somewhat unruly, potentially invasive and very determined native twining plant sometimes known as wire vine.

The backlighting emphasised how they were due for a haircut!

The magnificent kauri - Agathis australis - a taonga that needs more treasuring

The New Zealand kauri is a magnificent tree, one of the largest and longest growing trees in the world and the oldest in New Zealand, appearing here 20 million years ago.  Tane Mahuta is the name given to the largest surviving kauri.  It is 45.2 metres tall, with a girth of 13.7 m.  Its trunk is unbranched to 18 m.  The oldest survivor, Te Matua Ngahere, is thought to be at least 2,000 years old.  It is shorter and more squat with a height of 37.4 m and girth of 16.76m. 

Substantial!  (And phenomenal carbon sinks, a function that will be valued more and more.)   

Here is Tane Mahuta.  Unfortunately I did not have a person in front of it for scale.  To give some idea, the base of the tree is obscured by bush, and if you were able to get close you would be hidden by the plants in front.

Kauri are slow growing trees, gradually dropping lower branches and changing from a conical to a columnar shape with a flattened mop of branches at the crown.  Mature kauri crowns have huge branches which support an abundance of life with ferns, mosses, epiphytes and lianes.

Below we see the view up a smaller tree than Tane Mahuta.  It gives a limited idea of the scale of life supported by the crown.  People who study the ecosystems in the crowns need the skills of arborists and a head for heights.  There is a lot of life up there. 

But the future of the kauri is uncertain.  4 million acres of forest were here.  They have been reduced to 18,000 acres of forest with the vast majority of those trees having been felled or destroyed by European settlers from 1820 on, with surges of such destruction occurring in the late 1800's and 1920's to 30's.  Even as recently as the 1960's the government was facilitating logging of pristine kauri forest.  The wood is fine grained, hard, and beautiful.  Because the trunks are straight and unbranched to a considerable height, kauri were valued for use as masts and spars for sailing ships.  You would think that such special timber would be valued.  But it was wanton destruction - about half of the enormous volume of timber from the felled trees was burned. 

Now the kauri is threatened by kauri dieback a disease specific to New Zealand kauri, caused by Phytophthora agathidicida.  It kills kauri trees, and it is untreatable and spreading. 

What are we doing?  On one hand there are efforts to stop further spread of the disease - eg protection of the vulnerable roots around those trees that we visit to admire, special walkways and stations for cleaning shoes to stop the spread of the infection.  And on the other hand, there has been a weakening of the law that identifies trees that should be protected.  So an apparently healthy urban kauri growing in an area where dieback is present had no protection when the people who bought the land on which it grew sought permission to fell it and other substantial trees, in order to build a house.  If it has resisted dieback it is very precious and may help the fight against the disease.  Too bad - concern and protest and occupation by tree-sitters delayed but did not stop the destructive intent of these people.  It has been ring-barked - a cruel injury which means there is little chance that it will survive. 

So, wasteful colonial attitudes do seem to persist to this day.  And a government which removes protections previously in place for such trees seems like a blast from the past too. 

We are so small - on this walk in Waipoua Forest it is the smaller trees and understory that dwarf the walkers.

And yet our carelessness and lack of foresight might mean we lose this taonga (treasure), the kauri.

We humans are a puzzling lot.

Thalictrum kiusianum - Kyushu or dwarf meadow-rue - one of my tiny treasures from Hokonui Alpines

Apparently we have a limited supply of willpower each day.  In New Zealand we also have a limited supply of specialist plant nurseries - many have closed over the last twenty or so years.  So there is a shrinking list of plants available to buy.  The vagaries of garden fashion are partly to blame but, more importantly, fewer people have the time or interest for gardening.  However, a recent development is the increased interest in growing vegetables and fruit.  I think this is great for many reasons, and maybe it will be the gateway for more people to discover other horticultural delights.

But I need no encouragement - I am very susceptible to the lure of almost any plants!  And Hokonui Alpines have a good catalogue, often refreshed with new and intriguing additions.  So especially in times of will-depletion I find the catalogue quite irresistible, knowing that they offer plants not available otherwise (and that they are so friendly and helpful and provide such good plants.)  I succumbed recently and was delighted to receive a box of plants from them a few days ago. 

But I need no encouragement - I am very susceptible to the lure of almost any plants!  And Hokonui Alpines have a good catalogue, often refreshed with new and intriguing additions.  So especially in times of will-depletion I find the catalogue quite irresistable, knowing that they offer plants not available otherwise (and that they are so friendly and helpful and provide such good plants.)  I succumbed recently and was delighted to receive a box of plants from them a few days ago.  Here is one - not impossible to get from other sources, but a treasure all the same. Thalictrum kiusianum, known as Kyushu meadow-rue (it is native to Korea and Kyushu, Japan) or as dwarf meadow-rue.  It is a low growing (up to about 15cm or 6 inches high) groundcover from moist woodland alpine areas, conditions I must now try to emulate.  It makes a mat of little leaves that look quite like the leaflets of a maidenhair fern.  Above the midgreen leaves, tiny starry flowers are clustered on slender stems giving a light airy almost fluffy impression.  It looks delicate, but I hope that it will live happily here.

A New Year and sunset fireworks over Taputeranga

We had a week of uninterrupted warm summer weather with clear blue skies and almost no wind - the latter rather disturbing for Wellingtonians, accustomed as we normally are to plenty of air movement!  The first day of 2016 was hot and sunny - but wet weather was coming down from the north.  So by the time of sunset the sky over Taputeranga (the island of Island Bay), looking to the South Island in the distance, was dramatic.  It reminded me somewhat of the fireworks of New Years eve.

Another year has begun with all the beauty and drama of nature.  And I remember why I am doing this. 

I see the environment as a source of endless delight as well as being the source of our sustenance, and I want to share with you my love for and interest in the world of living things.  This is our world - we are part of it and we rely on it.  If we care about our future, we must care for our environment - see it, appreciate it, learn about it, and work on being good guardians.  We can all do this if we own our responsibility and power.

In the words of one of my heroes, Wangari Maathai, (who founded the Green Belt Movement which has planted more than 10 million trees) "You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them."

Hot air or the winds of change - is there the will to limit climate damage?

Wellington is a very windy place - often described as the windiest city in the world because we "enjoy" the highest average wind speed through the year.  Other places get more extreme winds at times, or are windy more of the time but we trump them with an average wind speed of 16 knots (29.6 km/hr or 18.4 miles/hr), and an average of 173 days in the year above 32 knots (59.3 km or 36.8 miles/hr), and 22 days over 40 knots (74.1 km or 46 miles/hr).  We have been having a lot of gales in the last few months.

At least the wind means that the clouds are interesting (albeit sometimes disturbing) - like these rainclouds over Baring Head, dwarfing the ferry coming in to Wellington Harbour,

or these ones creating patterns of light before dumping the rain.

Maybe the wind does create interest, and the illusion that we are polluting the air less than we are (it all gets blown away!) but it can also be very damaging, tiring and frustrating.  Grrr.  So the thought of more extreme weather is not welcome.  But that is what we face.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is under way.  The goal is a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.  Way back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, the UN Framework on Climate Change was adopted - a framework for action to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”   We have not done well.  New Zealand has done particularly badly.  Our overall contribution of greenhouse gases is relatively small because of our small size.  Our politicians hide behind this and they are full of excuses - an attitude exemplified by our Prime Minister John Key that many of us find shameful.

The damage that we humans have already done means that we face increasingly extreme weather.  The way that our politicians are dealing with this (denial, pretending to be doing something, exhorting others to act while failing to do so) gives me even more concern.  Just how bad do things have to get before they walk the walk as well as talk the talk (so often a lot of hot air)?

It is not going to be easy.  In trying to work together to care for our planet we humans will need to navigate a lot of differences - it is tough terrain, like the rocky and often stark landscape of Wellington's south coast.  But the water, atmosphere, and living communities of planet earth are changing irreversibly.  Time is running out.  We cannot be complacent. The sun is setting on what we have taken for granted.  The analogy of sunset implies there is a sunrise too.  I think there is hope - we can act.

Lighting up our lives - evening light at Nikko

When the human world seems full of ugliness and my mood is dark, I find it helps to look to the light - our gift from the sun, the source of our energy and life on earth.  "Lit up" is a way of describing the feeling of being energised and encouraged, and that is my experience.

It is very easy to be reminded that life on this planet is about much more than us - wherever we are, we can just look around and see, if we dare.  But human folly means that we keep making so many lives (human and other) miserable despite having this wonderful planet as our home, we keep causing suffering through the harm we do to each other and to our environment.  The earth offers us so many opportunities for awe, delight, fascination, curiosity, discovery, pleasure, and creativity - just from being here.  If we regularly take these opportunities we might find a much more life affirming perspective than the current world mood seems to be.

On my recent visit to Nikko I enjoyed one of these dramatic moments - an opportunity for delight.  I emerged from Rinno-ji (a temple with a beautiful garden) to see the trees on the hills beyond lit up by the early evening light.

And in front of me was a golden Japanese maple, framed by pine and cryptomeria (I think), their leaves sparkling and glowing, backlit by the low rays of the setting sun.  A gorgeous arresting sight.  Thank you!

To Japan - and glorious autumn colour (koyo) in Nikko

It is my very good fortune to be visiting a friend in Japan.  I have travelled from the relative cool of spring weather in Wellington to warm weather in Japan (although people here seem to think it is cool) - and some of the autumn colours are very warm too. 

A few days ago I visited Nikko, a small city in the mountains north of Tokyo, famous for World Heritage status shrines and temples in a site of great beauty.  But this time my priorities were elsewhere.  Heading to visit the Nikko Botanical Garden, I saw these Japanese maples in full glorious colour just near Shinyo, the sacred bridge.  (I failed to register the name of the statue-d person.)

It was a gorgeous sunny morning.  The backlighting made the colours really vibrant - and these were not the most vivid that I saw. 

I was one of many many people visiting Nikko that day.  We all go for our own reasons, but I hope that we all came away not only arrested by the beauty of nature, but having some awareness of being part of it and having responsibility towards it - not just the World Heritage site, but our own backyards as well.  The upcoming Paris climate talks come to mind.  Imagine how powerful it would be if we all took action to protect our precious planet from further human-induced damage!

No better place to be - by the Cockayne lawn at Otari

At Otari native plant botanic garden, here in Wellington, there are memorial seats/benches in places of interest and beauty.  As I sit and enjoy them I often wonder about the people who are commemorated and their connection with the place, and I very much hope that they enjoyed the plants as I do.

This seat commemorates Roa Isobel Irons with the words "No better place to be than here with family."  Here by the Cockayne Lawn the family of plants looks bright and inviting with spring colours - scarlet kaka beak and golden kowhai flowers.  And as the days lengthen and warm up, this is a place where families will happily play and picnic.  Indeed there is no better place to be than in the beauty of nature.

Kereru and kowhai at Otari - and it's almost time for the Great Kereru Count

I was fortunate to have a bit of time to get to Otari (native botanic garden) yesterday.  The sun was out, some kowhai were in flower, and it was very peaceful apart from the whoosh whoosh whoosh of kereru flying from tree to tree.  They are such a wonderful sight - their beautiful feathers, and their rather ungainly but often gorgeously plump bodies - like bumble bees, they don't look completely air-worthy.

Two kereru were quite settled in a kowhai tree by the Canopy Walkway - so I got a good view.  (I had somehow messed up the settings on my camera, alas - so my picture taking was not of great quality, but this gives you an idea of the special sight.)

One assumed a classic portrait-of-kereru pose

While the other was doing some gymnastics to reach and eat kowhai flowers.

A happy spring sighting and a happy reminder- it is just about time for the Great Kereru Count.

A pink hyacinth - welcoming spring and nurturing hope

It's the last day of August and the last day of winter (an arbitrary cut off, but there we are) - and it's a cold and grey day so a cheerful pink sweet-smelling hyacinth is very welcome.  Spring is a marvellous time of unfolding growth and regeneration - despite our cold winds.  And here we go again!

I am very grateful that the beauty of nature gives me such joy, and that it reminds me of the complexity and diversity of life, the power of the forces of growth and regeneration.

I feel sad and sick with dread when I see how often we humans deny our interconnectedness - with other people and with all living things.  If we can't cooperate with nature and with each other I'm not hopeful about the kind of future we will have.  But spring is a great reminder - no matter how cold and bleak the winter has been, a small change in the temperature and day length brings a resurgence of life and colour. 

So the message I take from spring is - let's nurture the tender growth of human hope too!