If asked to name the tree least likely to be planted in a garden today, I bet most New Zealanders would say Pinus radiata. Is it our most despised plant? Maybe it is just that familiarity breeds contempt since we have made this tree our own utility, forestry tree. Believe it or not, back in 1838 you would have had to pay between 21 shillings (an old fashioned guinea, no less) and 100 shillings (or 5 pounds sterling) to buy one in England.
I have a personal interest in the humble pine tree because we have an avenue of them which are now somewhere over 140 years old. I looked at them with new respect when colleague, Glyn Church pointed out to me that all the really old Pinus radiata and the old man macrocarpas in this country would have protection orders slapped on them in their native territory. For these two species, so strongly represented here, are native to a small part of the Monterey Peninsula in California where they are referred to respectively as the Monterey Pine and the Monterey Cypress. They grow somewhat larger in our conditions.
The tallest of our pines must be around 50 metres now. They’re a motley bunch of trees. One or two are handsome from top to bottom. A couple are dead and have become skeletons. Some have much better crowns than others and many of them lean out at odd angles. There are masses of interesting epiphytes which have taken up home on the branches and forks in the trees, mostly collospermum and astelias spread by the birds and ferns dispersed by the wind. We have nigh on 40 of them in one area of the garden, planted originally as wind-break in double rows at about 3 metres spacings.
There is nothing at all unique about our pine trees here beyond the fact they are still standing and we have turned the area beneath into long avenue gardens. Ours are by no means the oldest in the country. That honour goes to a single pine tree at Mount Peel Station in Canterbury. It was apparently planted as a three year old seedling in 1859 so is at least 15 years older than our ones.
It did not take long for the earliest trees of Pinus radiata in this country to start showing their potential as a timber source, especially as our new colony had been ripping out the native forests at a rate that was alarming even back then. In the 1870s, large quantities of pine seed, mostly P. radiata but also other species, were imported and distributed widely. It is likely that our pines date back to these seed importations. If so, they were merely a few dozen among anything up to 500 000 seed distributed.
There were actually about 48 different species of tree introduced at that time through official channels. One of them was the lesser known Pinus muricata, or the Bishop Pine, also from California. We happen to have a little row of four P. muricata. To the untrained eye, they look like slightly more compact, smaller growing radiata pines. We don’t know anything about the history of our muricata but it would seem likely that they, too, date back to those 1870 seed importations.
Would I ever recommend anybody these days to plant Pinus radiata as an avenue? Well, no. Our avenue of rimu trees dating from the same time are much more impressive, rock solid and long-lived. But we see some merit in our crusty old pines which have wonderful fissured bark and add a solid presence to the landscape of our property. Fortunately, Pinus radiata tends to break up and drop in pieces over time, rather than keeling over in its entirety. We get a fair amount of firewood on an ongoing basis and the pine cone production is prodigious.
In the past four decades, three have fallen. The only really alarming one was the latest a few years ago which snapped off at about 5 metres up. Turns out the trees have all been topped at that height – maybe a century ago.
We have lost count of the number of garden visitors (all older men) who have surveyed our pines and said: “Oh, they’re a problem. They’re at the end of their life. How are you going to get those out?” Of course the general view in this country is that any Pinus radiata over the age of about 40 is past its life span.
We can’t take them out even if we wanted to. We can’t get heavy machinery in. They would have to be done by huge Russian logging helicopters and we aren’t millionaires. We plan to just leave them to their own devices and to continue cleaning up the fallen branches. Common old pines they may be, but they are part of the history of our place and part of the history of this country, too.
We have, however, had a discussion on what to do should one of us be standing in the wrong place if one falls. Run towards the trunk, is my theory, because that is the thinnest section, and then decide at the last second whether to throw oneself to the right or to the left.
http://friendswbg.org.nz/PINUSRADIATA.html (Friends of the Wellington Botanic Gardens).
Horticulture in NZ 1990 Vol 1, No 1 republished on http://friendswbg.org.nz/PinusRadiatatoNewZealand.pdf
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.