Forestry commentary: The bushman's tour guide

By: Pat Cox, Photography by: Pat Cox

A look at some of the oldest trees in New Zealand

NZ’s largest Australian Banyan Fig tree is around 180 years old

Logging and forestry may be in your blood, but I wonder if the onset of mechanisation has stopped the logger from getting up front and personal with the trees they cut down. The first bushman in New Zealand must have been in awe of cutting down what would have been some of the biggest and oldest trees living on our planet.

Did those old loggers appreciate what they were cutting down and have any respect for them? It’s a question we will probably never have an answer to. I—and a few in today’s time—have had the experience of cutting down native trees and the massive pines that came out of Kaingaroa in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Those old crop trees of Kaingaroa, with butt sizes in excess of 1.5 metres and approximately 48 to 50 metres high, were massive in logging terms compared to today’s crop.

When felling them, just the creaking and groaning as they started to fall and the thunderous, ground shuddering sound when they hit the ground was something to experience.

With crosscutters of old, you were at one with the tree, from the moment you put the chainsaw through the bark of the tree. Its personality started to come out at you through its smell, sawdust, and size; each tree has its own unique smell.

Matai smells of vomit or just dammed awful—all the more noticeable when you get home after stacking the firewood in the garage. Milling old poplar trees smell like dog poo; pine is sweet sickly. Totara with its oily base is again different.

Tane Mahuta

We have some of the biggest trees in the world in New Zealand. Tane Mahuta comes in as the fourth biggest tree in the world, but it’s just a puppy to some of the early logged kauris from the Coromandel area.

Tane’s trunk height is 17.7 metres with an overall height of 51.5 metres and a total volume 516 cubic metres. Found in the Waipoua Forest on the Twin Coast Discovery Route, the 2000-year-old tree has to be on the bushman’s holiday tour.

Jomon Sugi is between 2000 and 7000 years old

A sign and seal ceremony called the Family of Ancient Trees partnership saw Tane Mahuta joined with Yakushima Japan’s Jomon Sugi—a large Cryptomeria tree (Yakusgi) in a world heritage site. Many have tried to estimate its age with dates ranging from 2000 to 7000
years old.

If we look at age, some of our oldest trees have been ‘bonsaied’—the Japanese art of growing miniature trees—with the oldest tree claiming the prize in Parabiago, Italy. The Ficus retusa Linn at the Crespi Bonsai Museum at 1000 years old is considered the oldest.

Ficus retusa Linn is estimated at 1000 years old 

The Redwoods in Rotorua is a stunning, well-presented forest with massive specimens on show. Planted 118 years ago, some trees reach as high as 75 metres. This would have to be on every bushman’s tree tour list and would be the best example of Sequoia Redwoods to view in New Zealand.

Rotorua’s Sequoia Redwoods

Located at the California National Park, the General Sherman Sequoia Redwood Tree is considered the world’s largest tree by volume. It stands 275 feet (83 metres) tall and is more than 36 feet (11 metres) in diameter at the base.

Although different dimensions to Tane Mahuta, the General Sherman is calculated to be 1489 cubic metres and middle-aged at 2000 years old; none of us will be around when it reaches old age.

Huge trees at Monte Cecilia Park Auckland. Note the people in the foreground.

Monte Cecilia Park in Auckland plays host to a number of imported trees, including New Zealand’s largest imported Moreton Bay Australian Banyan Fig tree at 180 years old. It’s interesting that this tree cannot reproduce here because it does not have the right host—a small wasp native to Australia needed to fertilise the flowers that are found inside the fruit.

Some fig trees will find a host tree and eventually strangle it and take over. This Moreton Bay fig is larger in diameter than Tane Mahuta and covers a bigger area. Lord Howe Island in Australia plays host to fig trees covering one hectare of land. Now that would be impressive to visit.

Wandering around the Monte Cecilia Park, there are a number Monkey puzzle or Chilean pine trees aged more than 100 years old. The park is well worth a visit. Another planned trip should be around the East Cape, leaving from either Gisborne or Opotiki.

At the tip of the East Cape is the small township of Te Araroa, the home of New Zealand’s oldest pohutukawa tree ‘Te Waha-o-Rerekohu’. Estimated at some 600 years old, it’s located in a harsh climate right at the edge of the sea on the local school grounds.

There’s another old pohutukawa located in La Coruna, Spain, although, there’s controversy over its age. Some locals claim it to be 400 to 500 years old with another expert from New Zealand claiming it might only be 200 years old. Historically speaking, although the tree has never been scientifically aged, one thing is for certain—pohutukawa is native to New Zealand.

To our loggers today, cutting down plantation pine for financial return is just a professional job. Trees are our business; either we’re cutting them down with machinery or a few are still stabbing their chainsaws through the bark to bring them to the ground.

It’s important we appreciate trees for what they are. Our industry is sustainable, and we should respect what puts money in our bank account and trees do their bit in maintaining our carbon neutrality.

A bushman’s holiday should be marked on the calendar to allow a visit to some of New Zealand’s oldest trees. If for no other reason but just to remind us of the majestic beauty of the trees and native forests we need to preserve for our future generations.

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