Report from New Zealand: How Plants Survived Moa Birds, and More by Susan Harris

Scott Aker, head of gardens at the National Arboretum, toured New Zealand over the winter – their summer – with his teenage son, who must have been raised with a high tolerance for hort-speak because from the looks of Scott’s slide show, it was a plant-centric journey. Scott certainly put to shame my own puny plant observations from a trip there in the ’80s, when I thought learning to identify their December-blooming “Christmas tree” was the height of horticultural sophistication.

keaBut I DO remember learning about the highly destructive kea bird, notorious for destroying cars by eating the rubber trim from around car windows, then entering the cars and proceeding to destroy the upholstery.

Scott reports that it isn’t just cars that are threatened by New Zealand’s birds – plants are, too, especially from the notorious moa bird, extinct since the 15th Century and the arrival of the Maori people.

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But plant defenses against the bird remain, evolution being not as fast as overhunting in its effects. Some defenses that Scott observed are seen in the photos above:

  • Becoming twiggier, with small leaves and a tangled habit.
  • Brown foliage that makes plants look dead
  • Leaves that look diseased and unpalatable, decreasing their appeal as food.
  • And the most fine-tuned adaptation of all, young plants having diseased-looking foliage, then transitioning to a healthy look after the plant reaches 15 feet tall, beyond the reach of the moa’s beak.


flagMoving on to other plant observations, the silver fern is so emblematic for New Zealand, it’s featured in stylized form on an alternative “Silver Flag” proposed recently. The flag design was put to a referendum but failed, so NZ will keep its boring, fernless flag that looks to many too much like the Union Jack.

Date Palm

Above, Scott thought this was a cleverly designed landscape, with the architecture of the date palm and the blue morning glories twining around the railing and building and the shade of green playing off the blue.  Turns out it was just a neglected landscape, and the morning glory is a notorious invasive plant there.


Speaking of invasive plants, Crocosmia (above) is seen along roads everywhere.


Agapanthus, too.


New Zealanders seem to love their hedges, which serve to stop the wind and make agricultural fields warmer. Hedge-trimming is big business there.

Tree Church

Scott had seen the famous Tree Church on Facebook and made sure to visit. Described as a “heavenly 100-seat chapel set among a 3-acre landscaped garden, the church boasts walls made of living trees planted around an iron frame.” It’s become a top location for weddings, though it takes 2-3 hours of pruning before each one. It’s such a popular spot that tree churches are now under construction in Indiana and Iowa, and who knows where else after that.

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A public garden I’d almost go back to see was just a dump in the ’70s when it was first established as the Hamilton Garden. It has an amazing collection of 21 separate gardens that illustrate the history of gardens around the world.  Above from left, the Indian Char Bagh Garden and Italian Renaissance Garden.

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Japanese Garden of Contemplation, and Te Parapara (Maori) Garden.

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Tropical and Modernist Gardens.

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At the Dunedin Botanic Garden Scott noticed that the Indian clock vine (above) had been given its own room and looked to him “like hippie beads from the ’60s.” I want that room!

More horticultural observations about New Zealand:

  • All their botanic gardens have children’s play areas.
  • Sheep are used to trim lawns in the parks of Auckland.
  • Even small towns all have parks.
  • American native trees grow too fast in New Zealand’s great climate and break.
  • The climate is due largely to air temperatures moderated by proximity to water everywhere in the two-island nation.
  • New Zealanders use the term “rain shadow” to describe the microclimate just east of their mountains.

A final tip to other plant people who might be traveling to New Zealand.  If you volunteer the fact that you’re a horticulturist to customs personnel, be prepared for extra special treatment designed to protect the country from new diseases you might be introducing. Scott allayed their fears by pointing to the brand-new shoes he’d put on just before boarding the plane. Presumably they were new and looked it.

Report from New Zealand: How Plants Survived Moa Birds, and More originally appeared on Garden Rant on May 6, 2016.


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