Part 1: Kahikatea with Sarah Mankelow

For treasured., we are asking friends of The Green Lab to tell us about their favourite indigenous plants, along with tips for sourcing and growing them in your backyard or community garden.

What is your favourite native plant and what draws you to it? 
If I was to only pick one (and it seems a bit unfair to all the other plants around because there are so many other very cool ones!), I’m going to have to pick an obvious one, Kahikatea. I just really like how beautiful they are, the wonderful stories behind them. There’s an amazing whakapapa around the Kahikatea, the fact that they grow next to each other and twine their roots around each other. They hold each other up in swampy water, this is a great philosophy for life; we can’t stand tall in the forest of life alone, we need people around us to help hold us up and support us.

What region or ecosystem is this plant typically found in? 
They like to be in swampy wetland areas.If you’ve between to Riccarton Bush, Pūtaringamotu, you would have seen the mighty Kahikatea in there, if you’ve been to the West Coast in the wetland forests there, you would have seen them growing.

How did you first discover or become interested in this particular native plant?
When I was a university student I did a job placement at Whirinaki Forest Park. This place – Arohaki Lagoon ( )– it was mindblowing, and how beautiful it was with these towering Kahikatea with their feet in the water. I also spent quite a bit of time in Riccarton Bush, Pūtaringamotu, helping them out, having that remnant forest right in the middle of the city, those trees in there are around 600 years old, still surviving because of the foresight of the Deans family protecting them early on, they are living treasure so hopefully everyone has seen them, if not go along and see these beautiful trees. 

Are there any interesting cultural or historical associations with this plant in your region?
There are a lot of  cultural uses. Beautiful fruit that both Maori and native birds consumed. Early settlers also made butter boxes from the wood of the Kahikatea because it didn’t taint the taste of the butter.

How does this plant contribute to biodiversity and the overall health of its ecosystem?
The Kahikatea is one of our noble trees, Rangatira trees. They are slow growing but one of the tallest trees in the forest. A wetland landscape without Kahikatea is missing  its heart, its chief.  A wetland ecosystem won’t be complete without the Kahikatea.

Are there any specific challenges or threats that this plant faces in terms of conservation or survival?
There is only 2% of wetland left in NZ, so loss of habitat is a threat to the Kahikatea. Many places where they grow are being cleared for farmland. Places like Travis Wetland Trust are doing all they can to keep this wetland environment thriving. However it takes hundreds of years for Kahikatea to grow to full size, so the loss is going to take many generations to recover.

Do you have any favorite memories or experiences related to encountering this plant in the wild?
Taking my children to Riccarton Bush, Pūtaringamotu, and seeing them get up close and personal with the old Kahikatea there. There is one particular kahikatea that has these large roots, twining and curling, and the kids would climb over those. I have photos of them to treasure as it’s special to be able to take your children to see these trees, their size, age and place in our world. 

How does your favourite native plant change through the seasons?
I love the way the baby seedlings of the Kahikatea look like little umbrellas, the leaves come out in a swirl shape. It looks quite nondescript when its young,  with it’s feathery, brown leaves. When it comes into its own in maturity, it looks quite majestic and it also becomes a whole habitat in itself growing different types of mosses on its trunk and branches.

Are there any ongoing efforts or organisations dedicated to preserving or restoring the habitat of this plant?
In my current role with Christchurch City Council as Community Partnerships Coordinator for the Red Zone I’m very excited that this noble tree is included in the plants that we are putting back into the landscape. Working hard to conserve the wetland habitat of the Kahikatea is Travis Wetland Trust and I hope to see more of this environment throughout the red zone. It’s a once in a lifetime legacy to leave to future generations. I might not be alive to see them grow, but to know that I have been a part of putting them in the ground is pretty inspiring. 

Kahikatea Grow Guide

To grow kahikatea you will need...
Patience. You will not see your trees reach maturity in your lifetime. You are planting a legacy.
Damp, preferably swampy ground
Space! Ideally room for more than one tree, planted at least four metres apart.
Visit your local native plant nursery for more information on how to grow this species.
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Kahikatea Seedling by Bridget Allen

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