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Picturesque Dunedin: or Dunedin and its neighbourhood in 1890

Botany of Neighbourhood

page 110

Botany of Neighbourhood.

There are certain favoured spots in every country where the naturalist feels that while enjoying all the advantages of town life, he is yet in the immediate proximity of rich hunting grounds. Those who know Edinburgh and have ever wandered in search of wild flowers up Colinton Glen or over Arthur's Seat, and round the flag-margined swamps of Duddingstone, will recall with delight the floral wealth of that charming region, rich not alone in the gifts of nature, but in all of human interest that adds zest and piquancy to life. The new Edinburgh resembles her old and stately namesake in several respects, and pre-eminently in this, that she is placed in a region rich in natural wealth. In a compass of a few miles every variety and gradation of natural feature may be found, from the sand-dunes on the coast to the sub-alpine mountain-top. If any who have travelled over this colony will give the matter one moment's consideration, they will admit that no other city or town within these islands is so favourably situated for the study of natural history as is Dunedin. The coast line of bay and ocean; the alluvial flats of the Forbury, the Kaikorai, and the Taieri; the wide bush-covered areas ranging from sea-level up to 2200 ft. on Mount Cargill; and the open hill-sides stretching across the Belt to the Chain Hills, Flagstaff and Swampy Hills, 2400 feet high; these all provide within walking distance the finest collecting ground in New Zealand. Few persons have any idea what an immense variety of plant life is to be found within the limits of the Town Belt alone. Starting at its Southern end on the knolls and slopes about Montecillo, and following round in front of Mornington, Roslyn, and Maori Hill, then crossing down into the Leith Valley, up the hill above the Botanical Gardens, and round the further side of Pelichet Bay, the page 111lover of flowers and ferns will meet with hundreds of species, many of them of striking beauty The first thing perhaps in such a walk which would strike a visitor from the old country would be the English aspect of the grass and many of the flowers. And it is the case that over one hundred species of English plants have invaded and taken possession of the soil. The sward is largely composed now of cocksfoot, ryegrass, crested dogstail, soft Yorkshire fog, and sweet vernal grass, intermingled with gowans, ox-eye daisies, buttercups, the purple self-heal, white clover, and many other old and familiar friends. But the scrub, though occasionally touched up by blazes of yellow broom, and whitened by elder bushes, retains on the whole its primitive character. The trees appear somewhat sombre in general aspect, but their darker olive-green is relieved by the bright hues of the white mapau and the glossy foliage of broadleaf, black mapau, and panax. In spring, glorious festoons of white clematis abound, and later the carpo-defrus, so named from its ring-bound fruit, comes out a mass of fine whitish fragrant flowers. Over the slopes of Maori Hill the pretty houhere is found, a graceful little dark-foliaged tree, with white star-like blossoms often produced in great profusion. In December the white-fiowered parsonsia, a common climber at the edge of the bush, trails its panicles of little waxen bells over many a less ornamental, but friendly support. Nor must we forget the vivid display made by the manuka scrub when in full bloom. Both species of manuka thrive and grow side by side in many parts of the Belt, and however common, and therefore to many persons uninteresting the plant may be, there are few prettier objects than a well-flowered spray. One of the most characteristic objects to be seen in the Belt, especially in the wooded portions, is the fine display of the very handsome flaxlike Astelias. These are only a few of the commoner plants to be found in a walk round the Belt, but there are some botanical curiosities which are worth looking for. One of the rarest of these is—and we must here and there inflict a technical name for lack of any other—the yellow-flowered Senecio sciadopliilus the only climbing senecio known. A little of it grows in the bush near Littlebourne, but except when in flower it is very difficult to distinguish, and even then very difficult to find. It flowers page 112also very late in the season, about the first or second week in March. Hooker, in his "Handbook of the New Zealand Flora," gives it only as occurring in Banks Peninsula, but it is not-uncommon on Otago Peninsula, though like the bush itself, it must be fast disappearing from that favoured spot of earth.

Down in the lower part of the Leith Valley, near Wood-haugh, some more rather rare plants are to be met with, but the wholesale destruction of the bush has already made many former denizens of this sheltered spot disappear, and those named here are fast following in their wake. Here are to be found at the foot of rocky precipices a few plants of the milk-tree (Epicarpurus), very often characterised here as elsewhere, by the diseased appearance of its male spikes. Nestling close to the damper rocks may also be found an occasional patch of a slender, glossy, dark green little herb, with most minute and inconspicuous flowers, known to science as Australina pusilla, which, as far as this part of New Zealand is concerned, is by no means a common plant. In this neighbourhood also, on the trunks of trees, has been occasionally found a patch of that curious little epiphytal orchid with the long name of Sarcochilus adversus. Perhaps, like other rather small plants, this species is commoner than its recorded occurrence seems to imply, being readily overlooked by any but trained eyes, for it has also been found at Sawyer's Bay. It is the only New Zealand orchid known to the writer in which the pollen-masses, after being pulled out of their anther-case, move downwards in such a way as to be in position to strike the stigma of the next flower they come in contact with.

While on the subject of orchids, it is noteworthy that the very curious greenish-grey or brown Gastrodia is not uncommon in the thicker and clamper parts of the Belt; while the tree, trunks, especially in the Leith "Valley, are frequently matted with the pretty little epiphytal Earinas. Of these the narrow-leaved one, E. mucronata, produces its delicate little panicles of yellowish flowers from November to January, while its stiffer and darker-leaved relative, E. autumnalis, bears its white trusses usually about February or March. The latter plant is very common on the rocks of the Quarantine Island, near Port Chalmers. Both species are very fragrant when in flower. The only other New Zealand epiphytal orchid besides those mentioned page 113is Dendrobium Cunninghamii, a very insignificant species among dendrobes, but with pretty white flowers, bearing a crimson patch on the lip. This species was formerly common enough down the north side of the harbour; a patch of it, fortunately well preserved and jealously guarded, still grows on the big rocks just above Port Chalmers.

A little divergence from the Leith Valley up the Reservoir creek and then up to the left along the Wakari or School Creek—now, alas ! with its waters sadly polluted—brings us to a spot where one or two more kinds of rather uncommon plants are to be met with. The hina-hina, or Melicytus ramiflorus, so named from having its little flowers arranged along its branches, is a common tree on the Belt. But up this wooded creek-bed two other species of Melicytus occur sparingly, viz.—M. lanceolatus, with long, narrow, dark-green leaves, and M. macrophyllus. The former species also occurs in the bush at "West Taieri, while of the latter only one plant has been found at the locality named, and its exact position has since been lost.

The abundance of mistletoes in the bush on the Town Belt is remarkable. Tupeia antarctica, and Loranthus micranthus are abundant, and are not un frequently found parasitic on one another. But the two remarkable little species of Viscum, the genus to which the English mistletoe belongs, are both to be found, only like many other inconspicuous plants, they are easily overlooked. V. salicomioides can always be found in a patch of small-leaved manuka, a little way up Ross's Creek above the waterworks; while V. Lindsayi occurs on the coprosma bushes in the Botanical Gardens.

An interesting afternoon's ramble is over the hill from Anderson's Bay to the Tomahawk lagoon and the headland beyond. Fifteen years ago, as one went along the Anderson's Bay road, several plants were to be found which are now things of the past. The curious shrubby ribbon-wood, Plagianthus divaricatus, grew on the mud near the gas-works, but ammonia-liquor and coal-gas impurities have quite destroyed it. It is still to be found round Pelichet Bay, however, and it is worth while walking round there in October or November to see its curious little fragrant flowers. At the rocks near Mrs. Tolmie's house, there used to be, as indeed there formerly was all round page 114Dunedin, abundance of anise (Angelica gingidium). The plant is, however, such a favourite with cattle and sheep, that it is nearly exterminated in this neighbourhood. An interesting little patch of it occurs on a ledge of sandstone rock on the south road below Look-out Point. Cattle cannot get down to the ledge from above, and human beings can hardly reach it from below, and here survive a few plants of what used to be one of our commonest species. Along the same cliffs, near Musselburgh, but especially round on the sunny faces at the entrance of Anderson's Bay, grew patches of the little fern so characteristic of dry hill-sides, Cheilanthus sieberi.

The road across the Peninsula at Anderson's Bay is interesting on account of the glorious views it unfolds. Standing near the highest point from which one can see across to Dunedin, a magnificent panorama is presented, indeed, there are few finer points of vantage in the neighbourhood. A little further on and the whole coast-line opens out away down to the beach near Kaitangata. The road takes a sharp bend at the little cemetery a calm spot within sound of the unceasing break of old ocean, in which to rest after all the toil and tossing of life's restless sea. Down it goes to the edge of the sand hills, and crosses the lagoon at its mouth by an uninteresting bridge. The lagoon is not a pretty object now, it has rather a shabby stagnant look, and the cattle have trampled its banks and destroyed the scrub that used to grow about it. Yet it retains much of its interest to the naturalist. In the first place it is a surviving relic of the numerous little bays which formerly occurred in abundance along the east coast of Otago, but which by the upheaval of the coastline, are now transformed into lagoons and mud-flats. Along the stones at the mouth of this lagoon occur numbers of a curious crustacean, like large wood-lice in form, called Idotea lacustris. This is the only locality known for it in New Zealand, while the only other place where it has been found at all is at Port Henry, in the Straits of Magellan ! There is a question of geographical distribution for the naturalist.

Let us walk round the meadow by the south side of the lagoon, and see what is to be found. The close sod is largely made up of water crowfoots—Ranunculus rivularis—with numerous aquatic sedges and grasses. Besides many common marsh-page 115plants, some interesting aquatics are to be found, such, as the ubiquitous species Zannichellia palustris and Ruppia maritima. The latter has the curious property of sending its little flowers up to the surface of the water, on delicate stalks. Once they are floated up, they open and are no doubt fertilized by the wind. When this necessary act has been accomplished, and the seed-vessel begins to grow, the stalk twists gradually like a corkscrew and pulls the fruit down nearly to the bottom of the water, where it may ripen in comparative safety. Another ubiquitous water-plant found here is Limosella aquatica, along with which is to be met with the minute Tillcœa sinclairii, one of the smallest of our flowering plants. A few scrubby Coprosma and Melicope bushes mark the position of what used to be a dense patch of scrub. "We can hardly walk through this without getting a few stick-insects on our clothes; at one time they occurred here in thousands. At the head of the lagoon, now quite destitute of trees, used to grow a bit of bush famous for its ferns, now things of the past; while round the northern shore we come on patches of Corokia cotoneaster and Cyathodes acerosa. The former is a tortuously-branched little shrub with black bark, white undersides to its leaves, and little golden yellow flowers, which are open in October and November, followed about January or February by red berries. Altogether an easily-distinguished, though sometimes rather a scrubby looking plant. Cyathodes, on the other hand, is a tall shrub, with very small, prickly leaves and miniatuie heath-like flowers, bearing in autumn rather large snow-white berries. The north side of the lagoon generally has abundance of duck-weed and Azolla, and is one of the best spots near Dunedin for the microscopist, the water swarming with an immense variety of small life. The Tomahawk head forms a pleasant termination to this walk. Besides the usual littoral plants such as Euphorbia, white flax, large-flowered Veronica and Pimelea, which grow along the coast-line, one here meets with the small solitary-flowered forget-me-not, Myosotis antarctica. A large form of everlasting daisy (Gnaphalium trinerve) is common, together with the small stemless buttercups (Ranunculus acaulis). Peeping out of the sand are numerous fragile white flowers of Claytonia, and occasional patches of the pretty little purple-striped Mimulus repens. Altogether a good ground for a page 116botanist, who, if he be fortunate enough to ramble up here in the month of November, will carry off as much in a couple of hours as will keep him occupied with study—if he be of a philosophical turn of mind—for a couple of months.

A much longer ramble, and one better taken later in the year, say in the month of January, is over Flagstaff Hill, and on to the top of Swampy Hill, coming down again into the Leith Valley by Morrison's Greek. Perhaps the best way is to go up through Ross's clearing, above the water works; the track leads out on the shoulder of Flagstaff, the trees gradually giving way to flax-bushes, intermingled with spear-grass. Many young cedars (Libocedrus Bidwillii) grow at the edge of this bush, together with abundance of native holly (Olearia ilicifolia). Here is the ground for Alsophila cohnsoi, a small tree-fem, which is very abundant on this hill-face. If the pedestrian prefers to come up the hill by way of Nichol's Creek, he may chance to light on a patch of Gleichenia cunninghamii, an uncommon fern in this neighbourhood. The hill-side is rich with snow-berries of several varieties. Early in the season it blazes yellow with the so-called Maori onion—Anthericum hookeri—which recalls the pretty yellow asphodel of a home bog. At this time of year it is white with everlasting daisies and celmisias, and dotted here and there with small orchids, such as Caladenia lyallii, Chiloglottis traversii, and the curious green Pterostylis. Yellow Senecios are also just breaking from bud. A few white and blue-striped violets may be found, and numerous little white or blue bells. Crossing the low saddle between the two hill-tops, if the day be still and warm, we rouse an immense amount of insect life, chiefly small, quiet-coloured but prettily-marked moths. The ground is almost fragrant in parts with the finely-divided leaves of Ligusticum aromaticum. Rising a few hundred feet on to Swampy Hill, we meet with a phenomenon not uncommon in this country, a peat-moss on the very highest bit of ground in the neighbourhood. As we ascend, the soft spongy nature of the ground shows that the grass is being replaced by Sphagnum, and in this spongy bed are a number of alpine plants, such as Foster a sedifolia, Oreostylidium subulatum, and others. On the very summit is a small lagoon; an attempt—only partially successful—has been made to drain this. Coming down the hill page 117again by a natural drainage channel, which is the beginning of Morrison's Creek, we come on an interesting mass of tutu bushes. Many botanists consider that there are three species of Coriaria or tutu in New Zealand; here they are growing all together, with so many intermediate forms, that the most inveterate species-mater would, be puzzled to place some of them correctly. A pretty rough scramble it is down the creek-bed, the steep banks of which are densely fern-clad, where the Goths and Vandals with their axes have not yet penetrated. How long they can be kept away is another question.

What profusion of growth is here. The stones and the tree-trunks are covered with delicate mosses and liverworts; here is the pretty little bright green Nertera with its crimson, coral-like drupes. On the spray-sprinkled rocks are mats of the white-flowered wood-sorrel (Oxalis magellanica) interspersed with the singular little Corysanthes. These are remarkable orchids; each plant has only one kidney-shaped leaf, and bears in early spring a single purple flower, the long-tailed sepals and petals of which give it the appearance of a gigantic spider sitting in wait for its prey. "We do not know how it is fertilized, but often when a flower is opened an unfortunate little fly is found inside, glued by its head to the sticky gland of the column. The top of Swampy Hill is about six or seven miles from the Post Office, but it is rather a severe walk for an afternoon, on account of the height to be climbed, and a whole day should be devoted to it.

If the botanist has time and can devote a day to it, he will be well repaid by a trip to Outram, from which a good walk and climb of 3000 feet will land him on the top of Maungatua. This remarkable hill is the most interesting ground in the east of Otago. Its vegetation is very varied and singular in character, and more alpine in appearance than perhaps an other other spot at so low a level, north of Stewart Island.

Altogether over 400 species of indigenous and about 120 species of introduced flowering plants have been catalogued as occurring in the neighbourhood of Dunedin, a very considerable number, when we reflect that only some 1200 species axe known for the whole of New Zealand.

The district was formerly very celebrated for its ferns; one had only to walk to the north end of George-street to be into page 118magnificent ground. But now, owing to wholesale cutting down of timber, and extensive burning, the collector has to go much further afield than formerly was the case. Including club-mosses, about 70 species can be gathered in the neighbourhood. Some of these have been already referred to. The common tree-ferns are Hemitelia smithii, Dicksonia squarrosa, and the silver-leaved Cyathea dealbata, the latter especially near the sea. About 15 kinds of filmy ferns have been gathered in the Leith Valley, or the thickly-wooded parts of Pine Hill and Mount Cargill, but some of these, as Hymenophyllum javanicum and subtilissimum are now rare. IT. malingii is still to be met with occasionally on Mount Cargill, but its former haunts on Pine Hill and Flagstaff Hill have been invaded by axe and fire. Another rarity sometimes met with in the Leith Valley is Trichomanes Colensoi, one of the most delicate of these little gems. Toclea superba, variously known as crape fern and Prince of Wales' feather, is still a sufficiently common fern in localities near the Leith Valley. The only maiden-hair which occurs in this neighbourhood is Adiantum affine (called A. cunninghamii in Hooker's Handbook). This is not uncommon on Otago Peninsula, as well as the North side of the Harbour, and is met with in suitable localities all along the coast. Species of Lomaria, Asplenium, Aspidium, Nephrodium, and Polypodium abound everywhere, and give the undergrowth of the bush its characteristic appearance. We must not overlook two little plants usually classed with ferns, and both of which are represented here. The little adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum) springs up in grassy meadows, especially when the sward is kept closely cropped down. When in spore from November to February it is distinguishable, but at any other time its simple little frond is passed over as a short blade of grass or other plant. The Moon-wort (Botrychium lunaria) is a species which appears in all sorts of unexpected places, disappearing again for whole seasons. This is in part due to the fact that its fronds take some four years to mature, spending three of these under the surface. It has been frequently gathered in the Town Belt, and in various localities round Dunedin.

The foregoing little sketch will give an idea of the botanical wealth of this neighbourhood. It must be remembered that page 119brilliant-flowered plants are the exception in New Zealand. Nor do any poetical or historical associations cluster round our plants such as give a halo of romance to the familiar flowers of the mother country. But an interest apart from these, attaches to every plant which the true naturalist meets with. Each species has a history, which can be unearthed only by patient research and observation. Each has become suddenly subject to new conditions, which in many cases lead to its extermination. Each has a peculiar relation to the insects and the birds which formerly abounded here, but which are now being replaced by new arrivals. And as this change goes on before our eyes, we see the relation of these indigenous plants being altered and subverted, and can see a new struggle for existence taking place around us. No doubt in time a sentiment of regard will arise for the old forms which are fast disappearing, and steps will be taken to arrest the wholesale destruction which is at present going on. And fast as this has progressed about Dunedin, there are still left here more of the natural features of bush and brake than occur in any other town of considerable size in New Zealand, and here therefore we can welcome the botanist and assure him of a good harvest and much of interest.