Of weather, early magnolias, possums and rats

Frosty mornings from Wednesday to Saturday showing up the lawnmower lines

We had to drive to Wanganui and back on Tuesday morning – a five hour round trip. On the way down, we drove through snow (inland from here), sleet and hail as the first polar blast of winter hit. By the time we drove back the sun had appeared but with a biting cold wind that felt as if it had come straight off the ice caps of Antarctica. Wednesday dawned bright, clear, frosty and calm though cold and that has been the pattern in subsequent days – cold mornings and sunny days.

Sunrise on Wednesday morning

The magnolias are undeterred. Matariki[i] is underway and the plants agree that this is the time to celebrate the start of a new year.  It will be another few weeks before the Magnolia campbellii in our park will be in full bloom but my annual pastime of photographing the magnolia and te mounga[ii]  has started.

Absolutely shameless, this kereru was, eating the magnolia buds as we watched

By 10am, it is warm enough for us to sit outside for morning coffee and this shameless – shameless, I tell you – kereru[iii] took up its position in a magnolia a few metres away, eating the petals of the first buds showing colour. It may have been its mate just down the driveway that was doing the same to the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan. We are more charmed than miffed. Soon the trees will open so many blooms that they will outpace the kereru. We would rather have resident kereru all year round than perfect first magnolia blooms. I am told kaka – our big native parrot – can do the same but we have not had a mob of kaka descend on us. A reader tells me she once watched them strip every bud off a magnolia. The only two kaka we have seen here arrived singly in different years and while Mark saw one of them pulling buds off Magnolia Iolanthe to hurl at the tui who were protesting its presence, it takes more than one to strip a tree. Rosella parrots – a showy Australian intruder – are also reputed to cause damage up north but we haven’t seen them doing it here and we do have them turn up in small groups. 

Just an unnamed seedling, as we say

The only magnolias in full bloom so far are seedlings from the breeding programme that will never be released. We only ever name magnolias that are going into commercial production and these first ones are just too early, too vulnerable to winter’s icy blasts to put on the market. They exist solely to give us pleasure on our own property. Some of them are such good performers that an identifying reference name evolves. So it is with Hazel’s magnolia. We get asked for funeral flowers from time to time, or we offer to do informal casket arrangements for people we know. This magnolia formed the centrepiece of an arrangement for Hazel, the mother of a close friend of Mark’s and a dear lady who meant a great deal to him in his younger years.

Hazel’s seedling at its best
Hazel’s seedling this week. The red arrows show what is likely to be damage from a kereru eating the young petals. The green arrows to the left show burning from the frosts this week.

Hazel’s magnolia makes a pretty picture every year. It performs well and, we found, also holds well when cut. In the world of magnolias, it is not remarkable. There are prettier colours, more distinctive forms and it flowers way too early for most growing conditions. It just happens to be the first of the season for us, standing out in bloom where it is growing in the shelter belt that protects one of our open paddocks.  Yesterday, it looked great from a distance. Close-up, it revealed two problems. The chewed blooms are almost certainly the result of kereru feeding on the sweet, young petals. The browning is frost damage and if it gets damaged in our mild climate, it will get destroyed in colder conditions.

Magnolia buds that will never open to good blooms. Every one of them has had the centre nipped out of them.

We have long assumed that the chewing out of young buds which then open to distorted blooms can be attributed to the pesky possums that Mark wages war on all year round. We certainly could have done without the early settlers introducing the brushtail possum which is a noxious pest, optimistically slated for eradication in this country, though protected in its Australian homeland. Mark is now wondering whether it is a combination of rats and possums.

Possum guilt. That red is a stomach full of magnolia buds. Our magnolia buds.

We know possums are guilty. Mark has shot enough of them in magnolia trees and the proof lies in an examination of their stomach contents. All that red? Those are magnolia buds. Rats are harder to prove because we never seen one in the act and we don’t have the corpses to perform a forensic analysis of stomach contents. But when all the buds failed on a plant of Honey Tulip last year and closer examination showed that every single bud had a neat incision in it, he thought it may be rat damage, not possums. We know possums eat out the centre of larger buds with colour already developed. It seems like the very small nips in the less well-developed buds are rats.

Our pick is that the large bud on the left has been eaten out by a possum. The two smaller buds are more likely to have been attacked, ever so neatly, by rats. Possums don’t attack the buds at that early stage.

In the meantime, how many photos of the magnolia and te mounga do I need? I shall stop now until more blooms are open. But glory be, how I love big, beautiful magnolias against a blue sky or snow.

Thursday morning
and Friday afternoon. At least the frosts aren’t bad enough to take out the Magnolia campbellii blooms

[i] Matariki – the Maori new year, determined by the rise of the Pleiades star formation. 

[ii] Te mounga – the mountain in local dialect. In standardised Maori, mounga is more commonly seen as maunga. Otherwise known as Mount Taranaki.

[iii] Kereru – native wood pigeon. It is fully protected because its numbers are declining due to loss of habitat and its very slow rate of natural increase – most breeding pairs only raise a single chick each year.

An unrepentant kereru eating the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan

On another topic, rather than a postscript, those who read my May post about Mrs Wang’s garden (and there were many of you. I know this from my site stats) may enjoy this delightful and affirming update. I feel vindicated. Mrs Wang is indeed a first-generation New Zealander, she declares herself to be a digger and she did indeed experience the devastating famine in China during her childhood. I did not, I admit, pick her as a professional civil engineer. Those whose ugly response when the story broke was to defend the establishment by attempting to discredit Mrs Wang with vile speculation based entirely on their own prejudices, need to take a good hard look at their own racism. I am not referring to comments on my post – readers here are in a different league but I saw some pretty awful speculation and accusation coming through on other social media. There is much that is good in this world for those who choose to see it.

The first bloom of the season opening yesterday on Magnolia Felix Jury. We get the best colour on the early blooms.

11 thoughts on “Of weather, early magnolias, possums and rats

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Australia also has the smaller – and way cuter – ringtail possum but it was never introduced here. The brushtail possum was introduced here for its fur but NZ proved to be far more appealing to it than its homeland and it is a huge issue here, threatening our native forests and building up to huge numbers. It can also inhabit urban areas.

      Reply
  1. Paddy Tobin

    Thank goodness, we don’t have possums here in Ireland. Many of your seedling magnolias would grace any garden and I look forward to more photographs of pink blossom, blue skies and your snow-covered mountain.

    Reply
    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is that clarity and intensity of light that we get here in mid winter – in a large part due to the fact that our latitude is nowhere near as far south as it seems (in fact, I believe our latitude is comparable to Madrid, though our climate is not) so our winter daylight remains strong. Allied to a low population and much ocean which means atmospheric pollution doesn’t dim our light either.
      We got possums, stoats, rats, rabbits, pigs, goats and deer introduced here – all now feral – but we are grateful that we never got moles or foxes! Or squirrels or beavers, which are both cuter but still not needed in this environment.

      Reply
  2. Pat Webster

    A wonderful post, Abbie. I enjoyed learning about the damage the birds can do to your magnolias. The photos were fabulous. And thank good ness for the update on Mrs. Wang.

    Reply
  3. Tim Dutton

    Very pleased to read the Mrs Wang update, poor lady. It is hard to imagine a more devastating blow than someone bulldozing your garden!
    We are lucky that, so far, possums and rats haven’t touched our Magnolias. Possums have stripped foliage from a Liquidambar here several years running and regularly take the new shoots from climbing roses. This year they started attacking the grape vines. That was the last straw: I started trapping them and am up to 24 so far. One of our neighbours has started trapping them too and has put paid to half a dozen as well. For good measure I’ve also deployed a dozen rat traps around the boundary, but not much rat activity so far. Our bit towards Predator Free New Zealand 2050.
    I checked our Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ today as yours had a flower: buds are still very small, so we will be weeks from seeing a flower here. It didn’t flower last year (first Spring since planting) so I’m looking forward to seeing it bloom. The equally new ‘Black Tulip’ is covered in buds and seems to be further ahead, but it is in a sunnier spot, so that may be why.
    A couple of years back we had one kereru that took 100% of the flower buds off our largest kowhai (Sophora microphylla) and we had not one flower, rather than the thousands we normally get. Last year we got a good show from it , but the kereru was nowhere to be seen. They do a lot of damage to our apple blossom and young apple foliage too. As you say, they really don’t care when you go close and wave your arms at them, just bob their heads at you!

    Reply
    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The story of Mrs Wang certainly struck a chord with many of us.
      The trouble with possums is that they keep moving in here. Most of the 70 or so Mark shoots are a year are fairly small in size so we figure that they are juveniles looking for territory. It will certainly help if your neighbour is also dealing to them. Rats are an ongoing issue here with a macadamia orchard next door and plenty of bush and water.
      I hope the magnolias prove to be a delight for you.

      Reply
      1. Tim Dutton

        Most of the possums so far have been adults, and some have been pretty big too, heavier than the average tomcat.

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