Thursday, 4 March 2010

Operation Crimson

An unexpected reward for our long journey to the south island has been to catch the southern Rata in flower.

Ever since I saw the crimson flowered Pohutekawa on our first trip to New Zealand I have admired their stunning beauty but also their tenacity to survive in very unforgiving conditions. The Pohutekawa are commonly found along coasts. Oh, to have such a tough flowering beauty capable of surviving our nothern temperatures! At that time I read about Operation Crimson, which was a planting programme to introduce these trees all along the NZ coastline. What an inspired idea. In Raglan, my favourite coastal town in the North Island, all the mature trees lining the river banks have a plaque on them noting their significance.

At first I did not realise the difference between the Pohutekawa (Metrosideros excelsa) and the Rata ( Metrosideros robusta and M. umbellata) as they both have the common name of 'New Zealand Christmas Tree'. But simply the Southern Island Rata is the 'South Island' Xmas tree and unlike the Pohutekawa I have now learnt that it flowers over a longer period than its northern namesake. In fact it flowers in a seasonal wave, starting on the lower slopes in late November finishing at the higher altitudes on the upper slopes in February.

At the Franz Josef Glacier I further learnt that the retreating glacier creates ideal conditions for the Southern Rata to spread in the mineral soil, which is rocky thin and warm. It grows from seed in the ground whereas the Rata begins life as an epiphyte perched on a host tree.

What was even more awe-inspiring was the density of the vegetated mountainsides, following the ancient folds of the crags in wave after wave of softly tinged coral autumnal colours drawing the eye skywards. In fact, Barney at first commented, "Look Chris, the trees are beginning to turn."

No wonder the Kiwis adore it and use it's flower as a national symbol, second only to the silver fern leaf. It does seem to represent their spirit.


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