Zealandia – Close encounters of the bird kind

Spring seems pretty ho-hum in evergreen Wellington. No huge blazes of colour rip across the hills. No ambrosial scents dare ride this wind.

Sure, there’s a slight vertical tilt to the sunshine, a little more birdsong, and grass seeds clinging to my boots, but for my first vernal Wellington, I’m wondering what’s going on. I signed up for a Spring Tour at Zealandia to find out.

Scheduled for a Saturday afternoon, it’s too late in the day and too windy to expect much from the birds. Our gregarious guide, Des Smith, greets the group with a clipping of black tree fern, mamuku, in his grip, signifying to me that this will be more about plants than animals.

“In our bush we don’t have that flamboyance of some of the exotics,” he admits, but New Zealand has more than 200 species of fern and this new coil of growth – the koro depicted in Maori art – is one sure sign of spring.

He leads us to a cabbage tree next, saying that yesterday he spotted one flowering in Lyall Bay, but this one is still green. Expect a fireworks-like blast of white flowers, he says. As a student of food and plants, Smith also points out the bits you can eat, drink, and use as a relief from colic.

The tour continues along this vein, with Smith giving the Maori, European, and Latin names for plants, their varying edibility and what to expect as summer advances, mixed in with all sorts of colourful tidbits about fractal art and evolution. The peppery leaves of kawakawa are his secret ingredient in cheese muffins and grass clippings his preferred accelerant for nikau palms.

Smith’s talk is so entertaining our group doubles in size as we advance through the park and I’m surprised he isn’t paid for this.

He points out the differences between the purple-flowering native broom and the yellow non-native. He shows us the small white blossoms on whao and tells us Maori wrapped their newborns in the soft-sided leaves while fishing floats were made with the lightweight wood. He even pulls from his pack a kindling-sized chunk as light as foam for us to marvel at.

As expected, Smith favours flora over fauna, though he had plenty to say about Wellington geckos and points out the takahe is moulting for spring. And, as expected, most of the heralds of spring are new green shoots on already green plants.

The highlight comes after a short walk uphill puts a kowhai tree in view, blazing gold and fairly dripping with tuis and kaka, which take no notice of our gawking. Smith is so excited he radios another guide to come by and, with a satisfied sigh, says, “There’s nothing more beautiful than blue sky behind a kowhai.”

Here, today, he’s right. Later, gazing over the hills before I leave I can pick out the same tree, flashing amongst all the green and a new beacon of spring for me.

Originally published October 10, 2012 in Capital Times. 

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