Our ancient trees: Lemon & pear

Of course, I’m talking about old trees rather than ancient trees – but their assumed ages are still pretty impressive.

In 2009 the Northern Advocate reported that Rolien Elliot, Department of Conservation Bay of Islands area manager, was “pretty certain” a lemon tree found in the area was the country’s oldest, but said the test to confirm its age would kill it.

The tree was growing near the Marsden Cross Historic Memorial Reserve at Rangihoua Bay on the Purerua Peninsula, where missionary the Reverend Samuel Marsden held New Zealand’s first Christian service in 1814.

Two settlers who arrived with Marsden, John and Hannah King, produced the first European baby born in New Zealand and are buried under a memorial at the site. As well, there’s also an anchor at the reserve dedicated to Captain Thomas Hansen, New Zealand’s first non-missionary European settler.

Descendants of Thomas Hansen were doing some maintenance work on the family memorial when they found the “very old” lemon tree bearing fruit. The tree, plus remnants of briar rose, were the only visible reminders of the settlers’ gardens, Kath Hansen said.

Lynda Bayer, who has a degree in horticulture, inspected the tree for the family and identified it as a Lisbon-type lemon or an Australian Bush lemon. Cuttings were taken and grown by Bream Bay Landscapes Ltd and labelled ‘Hansen Lemon’ to mark the family’s 200 years in New Zealand (celebrated in 2014). Read more details and see a photo of where the tree was found (opens as a pdf).

Intriguingly, the newspaper article says: “It wasn’t clear whether it [the lemon] was older than a pear tree at Kerikeri acknowledged as New Zealand’s oldest introduced plant.”

On his blog, The Art and Science of Horticulture and Gardening, Alan Jolliffe records some probable history and his thoughts on the pear tree, which is near the Stone Store.

The Reverend John Butler, who accompanied Marsden, was left in charge of the  mission station at Kerikeri. Records show Butler planted 100 fruit trees on October 5, 1819 and 85 the next day – it is believed the pear tree is the sole survivor of this planting. Alan Jolliffe identifies it as “possibly” a Bon Cretian but does note that although the tree is clearly very old, there’s no knowing if it was one of Butler’s.

Read about some of the other ‘oldest’ exotic trees of their types in the Far North. Read about the garden at The Elms Mission House in Tauranga, New Zealand’s second-most important colonial-era building.