Atawhai Nursery helps to rescue rare pōhutukawa

July 20, 2021

North Taranaki’s old and rare pōhutukawa – at risk from either falling into the sea or myrtle rust disease – have been given a second chance at survival.


A partnership between an IHC plant nursery, local iwi and the Department of Conservation is ensuring a new generation of young plants will soon be growing on the cliffs at Paparoa Reef, south of Wai-iti – but not quite so close to the edge.


Atawhai Nursery, near New Plymouth, is a commercial nursery run by IHC company IDEA Services. Nursery staff and volunteers have raised more than 200 plants taken from cuttings from the Paparoa pōhutukawa and they are now being planted out at sites selected by Ngāti Mutunga and botanist Marlene Benson, who first identified the trees in 1994.


At Atawhai Nursery volunteers with intellectual disabilities raise plants and learn skills that will help them transition to paid employment. Nichola Manning, who leads the team of support staff, jumped at the chance to be involved in conserving the special trees. Nichola, who studied horticulture at Lincoln University, is keen for the volunteers to develop their skills and for the nursery to get involved in community projects.


The first of the trees are being planted at local primary schools – at Mimi School, Urenui School and Uruti School. Other planting sites selected by Ngāti Mutunga include QEII protected land near the Mimitangiatua River mouth and a natural basin set back from the cliff edge at Paparoa. Marlene says pōhutukawa will also be planted at Urenui Marae – “probably just the three at the marae because we want to put them back where they belong”.


In 2017 when Taranaki was hit by myrtle rust disease, the Department of Conservation was looking for a nursery to propagate new plants from a stand of very old pōhutukawa on Paparoa Reef on the north Taranaki coast.


The pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) are a member of the myrtle family and highly susceptible to the disease. They are also located on the edge of a steep, eroding cliff and falling into the sea.


Marlene says the Paparoa trees are important for two reasons. According to Ngāti Mutunga, these trees – some of them at least 500 years old – were brought by the waka Tokomaru from the Kermadec Islands and are sufficiently unique to have a special story to explain them.


They are also the southernmost known natural stand of pōhutukawa. Marlene and Nichola first took cuttings in 1997 to ensure this particular form of the species survived. It has a smaller leaf and different flowers to the cultivated varieties.


“I think we have lost at least half the pōhutukawa from my first visit over 20 years ago,” Marlene says. “Hardly any of the big ones are left. We counted the rings of one of the biggest and that was 500 years old.


“There was a big one on the riverbank where they used to cross. That died about 10 years ago of old age.”


Nichola and Marlene took three further sets of cuttings in 2017 and 2018. It was a risky thing to bring something into the nursery that had the potential for contamination, and they had to follow an agreed biosecurity protocol with the Ministry for Primary Industries for taking and transporting the cuttings.


Atawhai has been very successful in propagating the cuttings – about 70 percent have developed into young plants. “Some of them are big. Ninety-four of the bigger grade are up to one metre. They are a good solid plant.” Nichola says there are a further 120 or so in the mid-grade.


“It’s amazing. I am really pleased,” says Marlene, who has been working on the project for nearly 30 years. “Ngāti Mutunga are really excited.”


Caption: Staff and volunteers at Atawhai Nursery in New Plymouth raised more than 200 young plants. From left, Hemi Sundgren, botanist Marlene Benson, Jamie Tuuta, Sarah Wright, Beren Hughes, Anne-Maree Mckay, Jaime Schrader and Atawhai team leader Nichola Manning.