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Return Of The Giants

“It's great to see the return of these forest giants,” commented Daran Ponter, Chair of Greater Wellington, as he planted the first of 300 kahikatea on the Mataihuka block at Queen Elizabeth Park. “It has long been known that these wonderful trees, such an abundant mahinga kai for Maori, once dominated this landscape.”

In the early 1950s, the government botanist, Neville Moar, closely examined the farmland between Paekākāriki and Paraparaumu, in advance of it becoming a recreation reserve to honour the young Queen's coronation, and concluded that much of the area had earlier been covered by podocarp swamp forest, dominated by kahikatea.

Moar collected many pollen samples from the area but for some reason they weren't analysed. Almost 70 years later when the regional council and the Maclean Trust began to plan the restoration of the gorse-infested paddocks at the north-eastern corner of the park, Moar's samples were exhumed.

Keen to ensure that they were accurately restoring the area to what it had once been, the council sent Moar's pollen samples to Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research for analysis. This confirmed that the area had been largely covered with dense podocarp forest consisting of kahikatea, matai, miro and rimu, complemented by swamp maire, tawa, rewarewa and pukatea. In wetter areas flax, ferns, sedges and raupō dominated, with scattered tī kōuka (cabbage trees), creating a distinctive swamp forest landscape.

In 2018, as the council and the trust began planting the 30-hectare Mataihuka block with pioneering species, particularly flax and manuka, many old tree stumps were found. Their identity was a puzzle: were they remnants of the ancient podocarp forest, or were they exotic trees planted for shelter and shade by the European pastoralists after the 1860s?

“To make absolutely sure we're on the right path”, explained trustee Chris Maclean, “we engaged the botanist Rhys Gardner, a research associate of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, to examine the stumps more closely.” Gardner microscopically examined samples and also travelled to Kāpiti to look at them in the ground. “He concluded that they were predominantly kahikatea and other podocarps, confirming Moar's original findings.”

The Chair's planting of the first kahikatea marks the second phase of this project.

In a natural process, such forest giants usually emerge gradually above shrubs and smaller trees to eventually create a mature forest. Today's managed restoration seeks to mimic that sequence by first establishing shade, shelter and moisture with pioneering species, then interplanting these with podocarps such as kahikatea, matai and rimu. Nikau, swamp maire and pukatea are also included. Advice as to how best to do this was provided by Rob Cross, the Kāpiti District Council's recently retired biodiversity expert.

“Over the next three years, more seedlings of forest trees will be planted each winter, to recreate the historic landscape,” Maclean explained. “At the same time, the developing forest will restore the peatlands on which it grows, after more than a hundred years of damage from drainage, farming and fire.” Ponter was particularly pleased that the restoration “will also greatly enhance carbon storage, so important in an age of climate change.”

He also announced that “To make this area accessible to all, walking and cycling tracks are planned, as well as a boardwalk through an area of ancient stumps, to evoke a real sense of the giants of the past.”

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