Tag Archives: old man pines

A lucky escape

There was a clue from the back doorsteps but neither of us noticed it immediately

Mark is an under-stated man who never gets carried away by the drama of a situation. As we sat down for our early evening conversation before dinner yesterday (a glass of wine may have been involved), he let me tell him about something that had distracted me during the afternoon before starting to tell his news. “I was wondering,” he said, “when I planted rimu trees to take over from the old pines, why I placed one so close to one of the younger pines which had good foliage.”

I didn’t even realise he had done this long-term sequential planning for replacement trees under the old pines. Some of these trees are now coming up to 150 years old. When he referred to a ‘newer’ one, he was referring to those planted by his very late Uncle Les when he still lived with his parents here, rather than those planted by his great grandfather – so ‘newer, younger’ in this context means maybe 100 years old.

Then came the kicker comment: “It seems I didn’t have to worry about that.” I have lived with Mark long enough to know what he meant – the pine tree had come down. This would not have been anything more than inconvenience and a big clean-up job were it not for the timing. When we had a tearing gale during the garden festival ten days ago, we closed off the Avenue Gardens as a safety measure and changed the route for visitors to walk up the very path the tree has fallen across and blocked entirely.

We closed off this path as being too risky during the gale force winds ten days ago …
… and redirected to this route
Now it looks like this. At least it didn’t happen during the recent garden festival

The mystery to us is when it fell because neither of us heard it. I walked up that path mid afternoon on Friday. Mark found the fallen tree late afternoon on Saturday. So there is a 25 hour time frame and in that period, there was rain but no wind. There would have been a loud crack, the sound of breaking branches and then a loud whoomp when it hit the ground. But we heard and felt nothing. Mark thinks it must have happened at night when we were both in deep sleep but I am sure we would have woken because it is not that far from the house. I think it must have happened when I was out shopping on Saturday morning and Mark was working in the shed with the radio on. He is adamant he would have heard it and felt the vibration. Maybe it thought nobody was here to hear it so it did not make a sound? (*Philosophy joke.)

Ah well. A whole lot of firewood has arrived, more than enough for us so we will be sharing it. And we have learned yet another lesson about the unpredictability of when and which way trees may fall when they come down.

It looks smaller in the photograph than it does in real life. I had neither person nor dog to pose for scale. It is about 100 years old.

Our towering pines

The rich tapestry epiphytes that has developed over many decades

The rich tapestry epiphytes that has developed over many decades

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 tops are not things of great splendour, but these Pinus radiata are now over 140 years old

The tops are not things of great splendour, but these Pinus radiata are now over 140 years old

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.

Pinus muricata, lesser known here and probably the same age as the radiata pines

Pinus muricata, lesser known here and probably the same age as the radiata pines

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.

Zephyr the dog photobombs yet another garden shot - the leaning trunks of the old pines

Zephyr the dog photobombs yet another garden shot – the leaning trunks of the old pines

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.