Tree talk

New Zealand’s first Arbor Day was celebrated in Greytown on July 3, 1890 with schoolchildren, residents and “dignitaries”  planting 153 trees, 12 of which are still standing. The idea of a special tree-planting day fizzled out after World War 1 but was revived in 1934. In 1977 Arbor Day moved from August 4 to June 5, also World Environment Day. The world’s first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska.

Lining the entry to the most important colonial building in New Zealand – the Treaty House at Waitangi – are pohutukawa, one of our most loved and distinctive native trees.

Each tree commemorates the visit of a Governor-General or member of the British Royal family, the first planted by Governor-General Viscount Bledisloe in 1934 during the inaugural Waitangi Day celebration on February 6.


The entry to the Treaty House at Waitangi is lined with pohutukawa planted by special visitors. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It was fitting Lord Bledisloe should have the first honour as without his generosity the Treaty House may have been lost. When he saw how dilapidated it was, he bought the house property plus another 1000 acres and gifted it to the nation – and then donated £500 to launch an appeal for the restoration of the home of James Busby, the British Resident (political officer) at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and representatives of Queen Victoria. The Treaty was signed on the lawn in front of the Busby residence.

Lord Bledisloe in the uniform of the Governor-General of New Zealand. Photo: Herman John Schmidt (the National Library of New Zealand collection)

Lord Bledisloe was much liked during his term in New Zealand, mostly for his sympathetic and generous nature. He instigated a 30 per cent pay cut for himself because public servants in the country – at the time in the grip of the Depression – had had a 30 per cent pay cut, even though he then had to use private funds to carry out his duties. He also donated a certain rugby cup to the nation, but that’s another story.


‘James Busby’ in his dining room at Waitangi. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Harking back to Busby for a moment, according to the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, he is “best known” as the founder of Australia’s wine industry, but also grew grapes and made wine in New Zealand in the mid-19th century. His viticulture and wine manual, initially written for settlers in New South Wales, was reprinted in New Zealand in 1862. Read more about this almost-forgotten side to a sometimes forgotten man here.

In nearby Kerikeri sub-tropical expert Robin Booth has something of a rarity in his Wharepuke GardenFicus auriculata (elephant ear fig or Roxburgh fig), a tree native to China.


Ficus auriculata in Wharepuke Garden at Kerikeri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The fruit is eaten in China and India but American research in the 1940s concluded that trees without their specialist wasp pollinator would not develop edible fruit. Robin has read that Ficus auriculata is one of the most delicious figs, “tasting like strawberries and coconut”.

“As far as I know all fig species other than the domestic fig have to be pollinated before they become succulent and edible,” he says.


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