A tale of a fallen tree


I was so shocked I had to ring Mark, who was out at the time, and echo a line I had heard him use before. “The winter firewood has arrived,” I told him.

I had been peaceably pottering in my rose garden early last week when I heard a sudden creaking and crashing noise followed by a very loud whoomp. I knew immediately it was a tree falling and hoped in vain that it might be in the neighbour’s. But no, it was one of our old man pines which form the backbone to our avenue gardens.

This is only the third one we have lost in the past 25 years, and like its predecessors, it did remarkably little damage when it came down, falling pretty well in the line we would have aimed for had we been controlling its descent. In a fairly densely planted area, it picked a line across the only lawn, clipping another couple of trees about 12 metres apart as it fell, but not doing major damage anywhere except to the lawn. Clearly it bounced when it hit the ground and the indentations go up to 30cm deep in places.

These are grandaddies of pines, planted by Mark’s great granddaddy some 125 years ago. In this country they are known as the common old pinus radiata but to Americans they are Monterey pines and are of a size not seen in their native habitat on the Monterey peninsula in California. Ours must now be amongst some of the oldest in the country and they tower around 40 to 50 metres high. Their canopy is not of great beauty and they shed needles and cones in abundance but we appreciate them. The tall trunks have a majesty and having been planted loosely in rows, they give us an interesting structure for the underplantings of orchids, vireya rhododendrons and auratum lilies. And pine bark is gnarly and interesting.

At some point these trees were topped at around eight metres, presumably by Mark’s grandfather around the 1920s, and this latest calamity happened at that line when the top simply snapped off. It has given us food for thought about structural weaknesses. We have also had discussions about what one should do in the event of realising that one is in the path of a falling tree. The instinct, we decided, was probably to dodge to the side and hope that one is jumping to a safe side. The safest option, we figured, is probably to run towards the trunk and then jump to the side at the last moment when you can see on which line it is falling. The logic for this is that the trunk is much narrower than the top and you have more chance of jumping to the safer side. Hopefully we will never have to put this theory to the test because none of us are at all confident of thinking that clearly should we find ourselves in the path of a falling giant.

Pinus radiata is so common in this country and seen only as a quick growing lived utility tree. We have embraced it as a forestry crop on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world. Under the current stringent bio security rules, it would probably never have been allowed into the country in the first place (it seeds, it naturalises and it has some really badly behaved relatives like Pinus contorta on the Central Plateau) but that is another story. Our forbears were not so sniffy about the merits of this tree and in the early days it was widely used as a shelter tree and as a garden ornamental. Most of these early generation plantings have now been removed, predicated on the belief that it is a short lived tree only (tell that to the Monterey locals!) so we value our old stand of pines as one of the few surviving from that early era. I see that it received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom as late as 1984 so it is presumably valued a great deal more highly there too.

There are over one hundred different species of pines from around the world, including Indonesia, believe it or not. It does seem a bit random that this country’s forestry and building industries are to a large extent based on a single species which is somewhat endangered in its native habitat.

Some readers may not be aware that the other iconic introduced conifer in this country, the gnarly weather beaten old macrocarpa, also hails from California and is otherwise known as the Monterey cypress. Presumably these trees made their way over here with some of the human traffic moving from the Californian gold rushes to our gold rush sites. Cupressus macrocarpa is not generally the most beautiful of specimen trees and very few are planted these days but over the last 140 years or so, they have become a recognisable feature of our landscape.

Plantsman Glyn Church tells me that radiata and macrocarpa are limited to a small coastal area in their native habitat of Monterey and are much more spindly than here. He suggested that were one of this country’s old man macrocarpas or pines to be found over there, it would likely have a preservation order slapped on it because of their grandeur and size. The affluent Carmel (home of Clint Eastwood) has macrocarpa as highly valued street trees. The fact that Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs (one of our definitive reference books) lists fifteen different named selections of macrocarpa is a good indicator that it is a tree valued much more highly as an ornamental in other parts of the world.

At least we now have our winter firewood cut up and drying in the woodshed. As we watch it burn later in the year, I will at times reflect on the thought that it may well be from seed brought in to this country at the time of the gold rushes in the century before last. Burning a piece of our history.

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.