Brian Miller’s love affair with nikau palms began as a child when his family travelled from Waikato to the Coromandel Peninsula for holidays. “I don’t know why, but it was the sight of the nikau that always got me excited,” he says.
Brian worked fulltime as a primary teacher for 40 years, as well as having a kiwifruit and avocado orchard, but managed to fit in a nikau nursery too after youngest son Duncan started growing a few while he was in the Scouts and “pestered” Brian to keep them going. “Luckily, they’re a very forgiving plant,” he says.
Today, 25 years later, all the nikau Brian has grown for his Nikau Grove nursery at Aongatete between Tauranga and Katikati are descended from a palm near his house, which he estimates to be 100 years old.
“I’m guessing it came from the Kaimai Range,” he says of the palm. “All the seed I’ve used has come from that one nikau and I spent years trialling growing from seed. Nikau don’t show a lot of growth until they’re about 7 or 8 and won’t start a trunk until they’re 11 to 15 years old.”
Nikau naturally occur in coastal and lowland forest in the North Island, and as far south as about Greymouth on the West Coast and Banks Peninsula on the east coast. There are separate forms on the Chatham Islands, Great Barrier Island and the Kermadec Islands but although Brian is interested in them all, he doesn’t necessarily love them all.
“The Chatham nikau grow quite fast in the North Island and become bulky – they’re almost grotesque. A nikau as imagined by Peter Jackson. The North Island nikau, on the other hand, is a very graceful and gentle palm, and sits well in the landscape.
“I don’t know why anybody ever planted a phoenix palm when we had these beauties on our doorstep, and don’t get me started on palms from the Middle East and the Mediterranean …”
Brian says there is “almost certainly” genetic variation among nikau within mainland New Zealand, although some differences will be down to growing conditions, such as the ‘spindly’ palms at Maunganui Bluff in Northland. “A pleasant surprise is to find nikau in cooler areas, such as the misty banks of the Whanganui River, where they’ve found microclimates, and they don’t seem to mind Wellington’s wind one bit. It seems if they can be protected from frost when younger they can take most things, including dry, exposed sites.”
With their delicate root system nikau can be tricky to transplant but Brian offers detailed planting instructions and has few losses. Rather than a central tap root they send out multiple anchor roots with a network of fine feeding roots “evolved to suit a damp, sheltered and shaded bush environment where there’s a lot of decaying wood and leaf litter”.
Brian recommends trying to re-create a bush soil as much as possible for the first 12-18 months to help the trees establish and in his own garden he adds rotted wood to the holes and around the trunk at the surface.
Optimum planting time is from about March to May when the soil is still warm and with a higher chance of rainfall or, second best, September and October.
“The funnel-shape of nikau means as much rain as possible goes down into the trunks so they can’t be over-watered. In that first year they need heaps.”
He says they’re the perfect trees for small gardens, “because you look through them not at them”. Brian suggests planting groups of three or five, combining trees of various ages for a natural look.
Rhopalostylis sapida is New Zealand’s only native palm and the world’s southernmost palm.
The Maori name, often translated as ‘without nuts’, is thought to reflect the disappointment of early Polynesian settlers who expected to find coconut palms.
Nikau need a frost-free position that is preferably damp and do best in a subtropical climate.
They are slow-growing, taking about 100 years to reach a maximum height of 10-15m.
They can flower more than once in a season (spring to late autumn) with flowers attractive to birds (including kereru and blackbirds which both spread seeds), bees and native flies.
Read a NZ Geographic article about nikau.
To contact Brian Miller phone 07 552 0822 or email.
This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.