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Image: Giant Spanish Pohutukawa Sparks Debate


How Old Is This Tree?

Famous tree sparks debate on discovery of New Zealand

A pohutukawa tree at 'the end of the world' has stirred up debate on whether the Spanish were the first Europeans to reach New Zealand, ahead of the Dutch and the British.

The giant pohutukawa is a big attraction in the Spanish north-west coastal city of La Corunna, capital of the province of Galicia. This province was thought until the time of Columbus to be at the end of the world.

La Corunna's mayor has chosen the tree as the city's floral emblem, and many locals believe it to be 400 to 500 years old. However, because the tree is a New Zealand native, this could mean that the Spanish sailed to New Zealand before Captain James Cook in 1769, or Abel Tasman in 1642. A Spanish helmet found in Wellington harbour about 1880 is one clue that the Spanish were here earlier.

Landcare Research botanist Dr Warwick Harris has recently returned to New Zealand after a tour that included an invitation to talk about New Zealand native plants in La Corunna. He caused a flurry of local media coverage when he stated his belief that the tree could not be more than 200 years old.

"No-one knows exactly how the tree got to La Corunna, and it has not been scientifically aged.

"However, I have the romantic idea that it was brought into Spain by the British during the Napoleonic wars and can be linked to the heroic story of Sir John Moore."

Moore took a small British army into Spain in 1808 to check the French invasion, but was forced to make a strategic retreat over mountains, pursued by Bonaparte himself and a huge army. Nevertheless, the British mission saved Spain from full occupation by the French. Moore eventually led his men more than 400 kilometres to La Corunna where British ships were waiting, but in the last phase of the evacuation his arm was blown off by a French cannon. He saw the end of the battle and died, and his hurried burial was immortalised in a famous poem by Sir Charles Wolfe (SCROLL DOWN TO SEE POEM AT END OF NEWS RELEASE).

Dr Harris says the history relating to Moore indicates it is likely there was a British garrison in La Corunna in the early 1800s. "At some stage the British must have recovered Moore's body, and laid him in a tomb in what is now the Garden of San Carlos, created in 1834. Most likely there was a British involvement in the creation of the garden, and it is a romantic thought that the pohutukawa came to La Corunna at that time.

"We know that Captain Cook brought back plants from his first voyage to New Zealand, and within ten years there was commerce in those plants in England. We don't know about pohutukawa specifically, but we do know that the British were largely responsible for introducing New Zealand plants to Europe".

Links to Christchurch Dr Harris says the mayor of La Corunna, Dr Francisco Vasquez, is interested in forming a sister relationship with Christchurch, its antipodal city.

"If you drilled a whole through the earth from Christchurch, the nearest city you'd come out at is La Corunna.

"So the famous pohutukawa is about as far away from home as it could possibly get."

Pohutukawa quite at home in Spain While pohutukawa struggle in some parts of New Zealand, Dr Harris says they thrive in the coastal regions of Galicia.

"Pohutukawa there are not subjected to possums. The frost-free conditions in coastal areas suit them nicely. New Zealand cabbage trees are also common in La Corunna, as are flaxes.

"There's actually some concern that New Zealand plants might become invasive, as have Australian Eucalypts, which create a fire risk.

"But as Galicia regularly has very dry summers, our natives probably wouldn't spread from where they are planted to survive in the wild".


For more information, contact:
Dr Warwick Harris
Landcare Research
Lincoln
Canterbury
(03) 325 6700 x3801
wdaharris@clear.net.nz

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna
Charles Wolfe 1791 - 1823
NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him -
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

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