Tag Archives: Pinus radiata

Saturday morning at the Christmas tree farm

A southern Christmas – the pine tree on the SUV roof against a background of blue summer skies and orange Mitre 10.

A southern Christmas – the pine tree on the SUV roof against a background of blue summer skies and orange Mitre 10.

A visit to a Christmas tree farm was a new experience for me. In fact, I was amazed when I called in on Saturday morning. The whole place was buzzing. Cars, trailers, families, staff, a tree wrapping machine – even a sausage sizzle. It was like a single focus gala day. This was a set-up where you chose your own tree and it was cut to order on the spot.

My interest had been whetted when I saw a vehicle outside the supermarket with a wrapped tree tied to the roof. Clearly this was not one purchased from a trailer beside the road. Christmas trees were already on my mind because there is something about the disposable nature of them that was nagging at me and I had been gently looking for alternative ideas. Ours is a household where we have a tree every year – but not a tinsel one in sight – but we have never paid money for one. I can remember our second daughter once wistfully suggesting that maybe we could buy a perfectly shaped specimen but the DIY ethos rules supreme and this was dismissed on the spot. Of course we live in the country with self-gathered options available. It is different for urban dwellers.

Choosing exactly the right tree was a family affair although the choice is Pinus radiata or Pinus radiata

Choosing exactly the right tree was a family affair although the choice is Pinus radiata or Pinus radiata

I was so impressed by this Christmas tree farm. Our main local one is Cedar Lodge Nursery. Outside this period, they continue to produce and sell a range of interesting conifers which are not widely available on the market. With a proud tradition over the decades, they are one of the few remaining tree nurseries in this country to still offer a mail order service. But come December, it is all about pine trees for Christmas.

The use of Pinus radiata as the main Christmas tree is largely a New Zealand tradition. The Europeans and North Americans lean more to members of the abies and picea families – the spruces and the firs. These are much slower growing, even more so when you factor in naturally slower growth rates in less hospitable climates than we have here.

Max the Dalmatian posed amongst the pine trees destined to the 2015 crop for harvesting. These have yet to be trimmed to get the denser habit which is desirable.

Max the Dalmatian posed amongst the pine trees destined to the 2015 crop for harvesting. These have yet to be trimmed to get the denser habit which is desirable.

The clipped and shaped Pinus radiata that I was looking at last Saturday were three and a half years old. That will be from the time they were sown as seed and they had made handsome trees around the two metre mark. It will take longer than that to get the Northern hemisphere abies and picea Christmas trees to saleable size. In the hierarchy of splendid, long term trees, the abies and piceas rank much higher than the utility pine.

I hesitated over severing probably hundreds of thousands of them in their youth to hold the tinsel and a Christmas fairy for a few short weeks when in London in early December a decade ago. There were hundreds of Nordman firs (Abies of Nordmanniana) being sold cheaply in the Portobello Road street markets. Mark allayed my fears by pointing out that many of these will be thinnings from forestry plantings and the ability to sell them as Christmas trees is no doubt a welcome addition to income.

It was a hive of cheerful activity at the Christmas tree farm

It was a hive of cheerful activity at the Christmas tree farm

Our pine trees are grown as a crop, as are many other plants. Yes they are a disposable, consumer commodity. So are poinsettia and most pot chyrsanthemums. The trees are starting to die the moment they are cut off to your request but so are all cut flowers. It is not as if we are stripping out our forests. If you are worried about environmental issues, I am sure you can forgo the synthetic wrapping to hold the tree in a more compact form until you get it home.

Some suppliers offer a recycling service where you can return the poor dried out thing to be mulched. Or if you can find a suitable spot to hide it, it will break down naturally over time and feed the soils – saving on the fuel to run the powerful mulcher.

The advice on care for cut Christmas trees is that the critical issue is to re-cut the main stem of the tree when you get it home and plunge it immediately into a bucket of cold water. This fresh cut enables the plant to keep sucking up water which is what extends its life. Keep topping up the level every few days but the advice to seal the cut with boiling water, or to add sugar or aspirins is unnecessary and unlikely to add to the longevity of your tree. A tablespoon of bleach should stop the water from going stagnant.

Enjoy your pine Christmas tree with a clear conscience. Our quick turn-around Christmas trees will have made more contribution to the environment in their short lives than any more permanent tinsel tree.

Last year’s leftover trees, kept trimmed, now 4 ½ years old for those who want a super duper grade of tree and have wide enough doors to fit one inside

Last year’s leftover trees, kept trimmed, now 4 ½ years old for those who want a super duper grade of tree and have wide enough doors to fit one inside

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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.

References:
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.

Tikorangi notes: April 16, 2010

Latest posts:
1) April 16, 2010 There are times we have regretted letting our purple bougainvillea reach its natural massive proportions but it is a splendid sight in flower.
2) April 16, 2010 There are no like for like replacements for the ever handy (if a little dull and clichéd) buxus hedge.3) April 16, 2010 Making the most of mild autumn conditions in the garden – what to do in the Taranaki garden this week.

Our venerable old man pines against the blue sky of autumn

The common reaction from New Zealanders to our massive, but elderly pine trees is that we should be taking them out immediately because they are dangerous but we are fond of their scruffy majesty on our south eastern skyline. Planted in a double row around 1880 by Mark’s great grandfather, they were originally a shelter belt and will rank amongst the oldest specimens in the country. Californians are often impressed because these Monterey pines tower around 50 metres or over 150 feet high which we are told is unusual for their homeland on the Monterey Peninsula.

Our Monterey pines - not all are exactly at right angles to the ground

But to New Zealanders, they are just crusty old Pinus radiata, a cultivar the timber industry has made our own as a very quick turn around, low grade timber crop covering vast acreages.

Occasionally we lose a pine tree – running about once every fifteen years at the moment – and the last one dropped itself in the one clear space that we would have chosen had we deliberately felled it, doing minimal damage as it crashed down but gouging out a 30cm deep indentation on the ground. Because they started life as a shelter belt and are planted in more or less straight rows, they now give us a woodland avenue below to grow frost tender material such as vireya rhododendrons, cymbidium orchids, monstera delicosa and a range of woodland bulbs. Such is their location, they would have to removed by logging helicopter but we are happy to live with them as a characterful backdrop.

Tales of the Christmas Tree

Fortunately this handsome Abies procera beside our house was not cut off in its infancy fifty years ago to act as a Christmas tree for two short weeks

The need for the Christmas tree is starting to weigh upon me. The deadline is December 17, the day when our first returnees arrive home for the traditional family Christmas. We could of course join the throngs who have sacrificed authenticity for convenience and bought an artificial tree. I was listening to a panelist on National Radio last week who mentioned his tree. A man’s tree, he called it. It comes complete with all decorations glued on to the branches so all he has to do is fold it out each year. It just would not do here. I would be pilloried and derided by the returning children who would take such a purchase as a cop-out on every front. They would probably assume that it indicated their mother was entering premature old age.

Alternatively, we could join the throngs who go out and buy a tree. Wash my mouth out with soap. How could I suggest such an action? No, our tree must be harvested at home.
Mind you, if you head out and buy a tree, you will generally buy a nice, dense tree of the correct, prescribed pyramidal shape. In New Zealand this tends to mean a choice of a pine tree, another pine tree, the common pine or pinus radiata. We have made the pine tree (a native of Monterey in California) our own in this country, for Christmas trees as well as timber. In the past Mark has been stung by criticism of his selection of wildling pines and has even resorted to wiring in additional branches to increase the volume in sparse areas. Last year he selected a particular tree which he then trimmed a couple of times to encourage shorter, bushy growth. Alas, in the ten days between checking it for the final time to make sure that there were no feathered friends of the ornithological persuasion resident in the tree and when he went out with the pruning saw to harvest it, a family of chaffinches had moved in. He could not cut it down and we had to make do with an emergency installation of four clipped matai trees in pots.

Over the years we have had a variety of different trees. One year I despaired of the pine needles with which my vacuum cleaner struggled to cope and I tried a tree skeleton, spray painted white. It was not a hit with the children. These days it might be seen as more environmentally friendly because when you think about it, entire forests of conifers are felled each year to furnish the homes of the western world for a few short weeks. I was in London in early December one year when the markets were full of Christmas trees which had been shipped in from Norway and Scotland. These were beautiful, dense trees, mostly Abies nordmanniana or Abies procera (the Noble Fir), and, being horticulturally inclined, I knew that such plants are initially very slow growing. The trees had to be at least eight years old and probably more. My oh my, eight or more years of growth to furnish the front rooms of Londoners for two weeks. Second Daughter was equally struck by these and I recall a blog she posted soon after her first Christmas away from home. Wandering around Maida Vale where she was staying, she took photos of the discarded trees out the front of all the residences where they were awaiting the green collection. Christmas Is Over in London, she entitled this on-line photographic essay.

An American friend is a little scathing about our New Zealand habit of using pinus radiata. The needles, she points out, are too long to allow the decorations to stay on easily. If you look at synthetic Christmas trees, they are certainly not modeled on the pine tree. Most are abies (fir trees) which have tufted growths that are much shorter and easier to work with. But the ideal tree needs a certain amount of horizontal branching from which to hang individual Christmas baubles. If the cone shape is too tight, all you can do is to wreathe it in tinsel and lights. In the US, my friend points out, you have a choice of several different varieties of tree. Internationally, abies are favoured because they don’t shed needles, picea or spruce are common but are less happy about surviving cut off in their prime and show it by shedding needles and there are many different pines to the common radiata which are used overseas. The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and its smaller cousin Araucaria columnaris make perfectly shaped trees. If you want to be indigenous, matais and miros could be suitable candidates (totara are a little too prickly, as are rimu). But the bottom line is, which trees are you willing to cut off for a mere two weeks Christmas gratification? Call me a snob, but I worry less about sacrificing the common pine whereas it is distinctly sacrilegious to sever the nobler conifers from their roots. My conscience is soothed even further when we recycle trees or branches that are for the chop anyway, even if this means some rather odd installations. This year it involves the extension ladder and cutting the top out of a mature golden chamaecyparis because its top knot has reverted to a much more open growth. The difficulty for Mark may be getting it down intact from ten metres up but my challenge is greater. See, it is a green and gold variegation and they are devilishly difficult to decorate with any aesthetics at all because they just make tinsel look even tackier than usual.

The final word on the topic has to rest with our dentist who regaled us with the charming story of heading out to buy a Christmas tree one year from the foremost supplier locally and finding that he had managed to bring home a specimen with a nest containing a fledgling thrush. The mother had presumably scarpered at the first sign of disturbance (and we won’t dwell on the mental image of bereft Mother Thrush left behind). Said dentist and wife then spent the two weeks leading up to Christmas hand rearing the thrush with worms dug fresh each morning. After all, how could you have a Christmas tree in the house knowing that you had consigned its now homeless inhabitant to an early death? As the thrush gained in size, they set about teaching it to fly with regular lessons outdoors, tossing it in the air until it caught on to the process. It would be a sentimental lie to say that it flew to freedom on Christmas Day. In fact it spent some time sitting around perched on the washing line (and no doubt pooing indiscriminately on the washing) but let that not detract from what is a charming home grown Christmas story.