Tree of the moment: Pinus radiata

Yes, the most common – at least in New Zealand – of pine trees, but every tree has a story and a sign at the Wellington Botanic Gardens got me thinking about how little I know of Pinus radiata, the tree we grow in massive forest blocks for timber, the wood and cones we burn on our fires, the scent we love at Christmas time.

The government asked Sir James Hector, the garden’s first manager, to source conifers with the best economic potential. By 1884 he had imported (no biosecurity restrictions) and trialled 127 species. The most successful then, and now, were Pinus radiata (Monterey pine) and Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress or macrocarpa). Both  are native to coastal California and – despite growing like Topsy here – both are endangered in their native habitat.

Wellington Botanic Garden is home to some of the oldest Pinus radiata in the country – a stand planted in 1871. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Albert Kellogg, a San Francisco doctor and botanist, alone sent more than 25kg of wild-collected Pinus radiata seed to Wellington, meaning the genetic diversity of the garden’s trees was high – and from stock long gone in its native area.

Seed and seedlings from the garden were sent all over New Zealand, half a million between 1870 and 1875, and DNA tests show that some of the ancestors of our forestry industry came from Wellington Botanic Garden. The oldest tree in the country is believed to have been planted in 1859 at Mt Peel Station in South Canterbury.

Pinus radiata makes up 90% of our forestry plantings but Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says foresters had to learn how to manage the tree as it wasn’t used for forestry in California and, in fact, wasn’t widely grown there. Read the rest of the entry here.

Read a NZ Geographic profile of Pinus radiata by Chris Hegan.

Postcard from Southeast Alaska

For the past 10 days I have been enjoying meeting plants in southeast Alaska, where it’s spring. This part of the world is also experiencing climate change and the season is more advanced than usual – we’ve had a number of hot, sunny days which locals say is unusual. Rain is usually more likely but we’ve had only a small shower or two,  nothing much.

Our guides have been knowledgeable and enthusiastic, even if he or she has been a young American from “the lower 48” working at a summer job. Sam has been in Hoonah for only  6 weeks but has taken the trouble to learn enough of the local Tlingit language (pronounced Klingit – it’s not an easy language having, for instance, 57 sounds not found in any other language) to introduce himself in the traditional way and has been entrusted with several Tlingit stories local to Hoonah, which he is allowed to share with visitors. Susan has lived in Sitka for 47 years and imparts the history of the island, which was the capital of Russian-America, from Tlingit to present day, while in Wrangell we were particularly fortunate to be led by Brittany, a local Tlingit woman, who has a BA and is now in the second year of her law degree. Read some Tlingit history here.

They have all mentioned local plants of interest, from berries to orchids, as part of their tour and have been good at pointing out ones we shouldn’t touch – there are several!

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in the US and covers most of Southeast Alaska so every time we walked in a national park it was the Tongass, which is a temperate rainforest comprised primarily of western hemlock, western red cedar and Sitka spruce trees. Read a 2007 National Geographic article here.

In a patch of sunlight in the forest I noticed pink flowers growing at the base of a tree. A later check of my Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers by Verna E Pratt (2004) I saw that it was a round leaf orchid (Galearis rotundifolia). Other sources say it is found right across Alaska, Canada and Greenland and parts of the northern US.


Galearis rotundifolia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Muskeg are swampy places with acidic soil that stunts the trees that grow there and it was in a muskeg near Hoonah that I met another Alaskan orchid, the aromatic bog candle (Platanthera dilatata), although this is also native to much of Canada and other parts of the US. Read more about the plant and see more photos here. I was thrilled to see swathes of it growing by the roadside as we went back into town but we were on a bus so all I could do was admire it out the window.


The bog candle orchid, seen in the Spasski Valley near Hoonah. The white ‘fuzzy’ blob towards the bottom of the stem appeared to be the work of a spittlebug. Photo: Sandra Simpson


‘Miles of accidental loveliness’

Photo: Richard Croft, via Wikipedia

Ahead of me, the path was so overgrown as to be obliterated. I pushed through lush sprays of lacy flowers and nodding daisies. There were wildflowers of purple and yellow and the most delicate pale blue. This was a garden growing on concrete. This is the most extraordinary fact about Britain. It wants to be a garden. Flowers bloom in the unlikeliest places – on railway sidings  and waste grounds where there is nothing beneath them but rubble and grit. You even see clumps of flowery life growing on the sides of abandoned warehouses and old viaducts. If all the humans in the UK vanished tomorrow, Britain would still be in flower. This is in complete contrast to America where nature is wild and raw. You need flamethrowers to keep the weeds in check where I come from. Here it is just miles of accidental loveliness. It is really quite splendid.

– Bill Bryson, from his book The Road to Little Dribbling: More notes from a small island (2015)


Went and saw Flight of the Butterflies last night – delightful 3D documentary being shown as a fundraiser for the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. The seats sold so quickly that they’re doing it all again on June 22 – 6.30pm at Bay City Cinemas in Tauranga. Book the $16 tickets here (and also see a trailer).

This delightful film traces the work of Canadian scientist Fred Urquhart to understand more about the orange butterflies that fascinated him as a child, alternating with a narrative about the monarchs’ grand migration. Until Fred and his army of ‘citizen scientists’ no one knew the flight path, what happened at the other end or even where the other end was!

Beautiful photography that had us all reaching out to cup a butterfly as they flew round our heads (3D glasses on loan at the theatre). The film was introduced by Jacqui Knight, chairwoman of the MBNZ trust, who mentioned the alarming decline of the native forest ringlet butterfly.

Another documentary coming up is a call to action – Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. This shows at the Banks Ave Hall, Mt Maunganui on June 12 at 6.30pm with food trucks available. Email to book a $15 ticket.

Merivale Community Gardens in Tauranga is adding a new plank to its platform – installing vege gardens in backyards with ongoing support to help keep it producing. The first one was installed in March and sponsored by Dr Luke Bradford, a GP. To sponsor a garden or to be considered for one at your place email community gardens co-ordinator Deb McCarthy.

Fancy a project? Waitakaruru Arboretum is for sale. The 17.5ha sculpture garden and arboretum has been developed over several years in a former quarry situated between Cambridge, Morrinsville and Hamilton. See a video of the property here (3:44) and see the sales listing here. One good owner (technically, two, but you know what I mean).

Don’t forget to check the Events listings to find something that’s coming up near you. The list is being updated all the time.

Escape! to Tauranga

The Escape! festival opens at Baycourt Theatre in Tauranga tomorrow – a holiday weekend of performance, speakers, food, story-telling and workshops. As it’s been taking up a fair bit of my time lately, I thought I’d share some of it with you.

Very excited to have chef Peter Gordon coming, especially as he has generously committed to the festival, despite heading back home to the UK on Monday! Hear him talk to Jesse Mulligan at 11.30am on Saturday (details here).

Dr Siouxsie Wiles is hard to miss in a crowd, she’s a microbiologist with pink hair. Siouxsie (Susie) heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at Auckland University and is giving an illustrated talk on Marvellous Microbes tomorrow at 5.30pm. On Sunday at 2.30pm she’s talking to NZ Herald science reporter Jamie Morton about science communication, and good and bad science (among other things), details here. Read a Q&A about the rise of ‘superbugs’ and antibiotic resistance between Siouxsie and Jamie here.

Friday Night in the Foyer (I think I’ve just named it that) – it’s the Panhandlers at 8pm, a dynamic duo that mix and match music with poetry and spoken word. The foyer is being dressed by the clever people at The Incubator so do come and have a look. Callum’s mum is coming to the show – he hopes she won’t be embarrassed by his new piece about the state of his bedroom!

Shakespeare’s centre stage in the year that marks the 400th anniversary of his death – Michael Hurst brings his one-man show No Holds Bard (Friday & Saturday) and also joins a discussion panel with Professor Mark Houlahan (link to Radio NZ interview) and Donovan Bixley, author-illustrator of a picture book for adults about the Bard (Saturday, 10am).

Then there’s Media Matters (1pm), and what a state of flux our media is in so plenty discuss there, Under Review (with Steve Braunias and Jesse Mulligan at 2.30pm) and our ‘big ideas’ panel, Don’t Mention the Flag. Bringing together former Cabinet Minister Margaret Wilson, business commentator Rod Oram, Auckland’s Basement Theatre general manager and award-winning entrepreneur Charlie McDermott and Awanui Black of the Tauranga Moana Iwi Leaders Forum, the panel includes plenty of time for questions so do come along and be heard.

Sunday kicks off at 10am with what promises to be an intriguing conversation between Steve Braunias, author of The Scene of the Crime, a collection of courtroom writing, and Judge Paul Mabey.

Robert McGowan appears in The Great Escape! on Sunday. Photo: Supplied

Former Katherine Mansfield Fellow Greg McGee talks to Nicky Pellegrino about his novel The Antipodeans (11.30am) which uses both Italy and New Zealand as a backdrop, Dame Anne Salmond talks to Rod Vaughan about her life and work (1pm) and the afternoon ends with a fun panel – The Great Escape! (4pm). Six speakers have 7 minutes each to tell a true story based on the session title. Taking up the challenge are Robert McGowan of Tauranga, a rongoa Maori medicine expert and former Catholic priest, film buff Geoff Lealand, Donovan Bixley, Siouxsie Wiles, Greg McGee and Nicky Pellegrino.

And last, but certainly not least, is an Italian-theme morning tea with Nicky Pellegrino on Monday (Queen’s Birthday) at 10am. She and Escape! director Claire Mabey will chat about Italy, food, books, love and … Italy!

But wait, there’s more … food trucks, coffee carts and free events. The Human Library (10am-2pm, Sat & Sun) and Story-telling on the Lawn (Sat & Sun), or you could pop down to Tauranga Art Gallery for the Zinefest (Sat only).

Be lovely to see you there – door sales still available!