“But it’s not native so it is expendable”

The kauri in our park – a high value native tree beyond reproach but it has taken over 60 years to get this size and is not suitable for most urban settings

I can’t tell you how irritated I get by this sentiment and I have seen it trotted out on several occasions recently. I get irritated because it rarely reflects a thoughtful position. And when you drill down, it only applies to trees. The speaker is just as likely to be drinking tea, coffee or wine – all from imported plant material. Indeed almost 100% of food we eat in this country comes from imported plants originally, even if it is now grown in the backyard. All our fruit, all our vegetables. All our meat is raised on pasture that is comprised of exotic grasses. Our grains are all imported species, as are  our grazing animals. Even the dominant earthworms include many foreigners.

The vast majority of flowers that adorn our gardens or we buy to bring indoors to beautify our environment are of foreign origin. Our forestry industry is built on imported plant species.

All our foods have been imported at some stage of our history. Mark grew a fine range of tomatoes this season – selections from around the world

Most of us live in very heavily modified environments and lead lives that would be totally unsustainable without imported plant material. This is not to say that we should not value and defend the very few pockets of land which remain with vestiges of original vegetation. These are of high value and we should be trying to protect, extend and restore these. But your suburban street, small holding or farm is never going to achieve native plant purity. And only planting dwarf fruit trees is not going to do anything to modify climate change or produce much of the oxygen that we breathe.

Alas, we are also a nation that, in the main, does not value trees and is ready to fell them at the first opportunity. “It is not a native,” is the justification often put up by the chainsaw brigade. (Or, if it is a pohutukawa, “it is a weed”!) That does not mean it is expendable and of no value. The world has even more beautiful trees than delicious food crops. And it takes a lot longer to grow a mature tree than a lettuce or basil plant. Some of those trees will adapt and grow in conditions where few of our native varieties will survive. Most of our native trees evolved in a forested environment, used to growing in company. There are not that many that will adapt to being single specimens or even a row of trees on an exposed coastline or a windswept road verge.

The much maligned and derided Norfolk Island pine

Particular contempt is often reserved for the Norfolk Island pine which does very well in many parts of New Zealand, looking handsome and healthy, even on exposed coastlines. Stop and think for a moment, before you reach for the chainsaw with contemptuous dismissal of this tree. It comes from the same plant family as our native kauri. It also originates on Norfolk Island which is about as close as any ‘foreign’ land gets to us.

A variation on this line is “I only grow plants that are native or edible”. Oh, okay. All of the above arguments apply. It is fine for you to declare that you only want a garden where every plant is either native or edible. Just don’t espouse this viewpoint as though it is the higher moral ground because it is actually quite a naïve position. Lawn and grass should of course be banned in such a garden, unless you are going to locate and harvest one of our native grasses.

What the world needs is more trees to purify the air, to provide oxygen, to enhance eco systems and the environment, to slow down erosion and to modify climate change. I understand that some people do not see any aesthetic value in trees. I don’t agree with that view but I see evidence of it so I must acknowledge that not everybody sees big trees as being something of beauty. But it is no accident that wealthy areas of cities are often referred to as ‘leafy suburbs’. Pretty much without exception, they have established trees to soften the hard concrete and sealed urban landscape. There are not many New Zealand native trees that will tolerate, let alone thrive in the harsh, urban landscape. Rule out exotic trees and all we will have in cities are nikau palms, kowhai and pohutukawa in northern areas.

The problem with trees is that they take 20 years to get established and upwards of forty to start reaching maturity. Yet they can be felled in minutes. But, still many argue, if they are not native, they are of no intrinsic value.

A life without magnolias would be unthinkable for us, but they are anything but native

12 thoughts on ““But it’s not native so it is expendable”

  1. Maureen Sudlow

    Absolutely. We have moved often, and planted trees wherever we have been, some natives, some not. And I loathe those who cut down beautiful old trees because ‘they spoil our view’…

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes! It is not a case of EITHER native OR exotic. All have their places. And don’t get me started on those vandals who think a view with a tree is a spoiled view.

  2. Tom Whelan

    Well said! I would add that the current growth of house building in my home city- New Plymouth- means that older houses are being removed from existing lots and replaced by larger, grander homes. Often there are mature trees on the land and they seem to go as well. All gets replaced by hard landscaping and the same silly collection of decorative grasses, wind burnt palm trees et al.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Greater urban density is why we need local councils with more vision when it comes to urban green space and active tree planting programmes. Because when there is too little space for trees on small sections, big trees on public land becomes hugely more important. This is my latest hobby horse!

  3. Carolyn Thomas

    The photos of the Norfolk Island Pine are stunning! I would love that look here in Wilmington, NC USA. In our city, in the haste to build, beautiful 100-200 year old Live Oak trees are bulldozed down. There are plenty of people who pay to have them root pruned and then transported to their properties! Why can’t we get that movement started?
    Thank you for sharing, even it is a lament.
    Happy Easter!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Apparently this is an international concern. I have just had comment from Australia on the Facebook link. It was the derision and contempt heaped upon the poor Norfolk Island pine that motivated that post. They are a handsome tree, well adapted to the coastal conditions of NZ but much disliked by too many people.

  4. tonytomeo

    Oh, how I HATE when someone moves into my neighborhood and wants to cut down all the big trees to open up a view. Many people WANT the view of the trees. Those who do not like the trees should live in areas where there are less of them. We have such a mix here, that there are plenty of neighborhoods with less trees. However, we also have invasive exotic trees that have escaped landscapes and are now interfering with the ecosystem. Those are the sort that we need to control in order to protect the natural ecosystem and native vegetation. It is the reason why or native California poppy, our state flower, is now so rare.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Generally, the state of tree-ness of a suburb defines its socio economic status. At least in established suburbs. In new suburbs, full of what we call McMansions in this country, the incidence of trees is more an indicator of social class as opposed to personal wealth.

      1. tonytomeo

        That is an interesting observation. To many, the McMansion is more important than what goes on around it. Yard space is limited because it is not valued. There is not much appreciation for the assets of such spaces. Also, the trees obscure the exhibition of the McMansion. In some of the neighborhoods where we work in Los Angeles, some people want a lot of trees, even where garden space is limited, but they are not those living in McMansions.
        I live in my neighborhood because I can not afford to live in town. We have some of the most expensive real estate in America here. I can understand why some of us want to take some trees out. We get forest fires through here sometimes, and there really are many trees. I also understand that some people want to harvest their timber, and I have not problem with that if it is done responsibly. However, people who hate trees and want to clear cut all their land should live somewhere else.

  5. Jan Sanders

    How true Abbie – I love the quiet, sombre shades of our native bush but watching sunlight dance through silver birch trees or moonlight reflecting the soft magnolia whites and creams, the brilliance of burnished golds, reds, and crimson when the “season of mellow fruitfulness” is upon our beautiful world – I would not like to live without these joys.

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