New Zealand Plants and their Story
Chapter VI. — The Meadows
European contrasted with New Zealand meadows—The meadows of the Dominion—How meadows are formed by nature—Valuable indigenous grasses—Flowers of the lowland pastures—The mountain meadows— Colours of the alpine flowers—Buttercups, ourisias, yellow forget-me-nots— An alpine desert—Drought-resisting contrivances—Peat-forming plants.
Meadows in General.*
When the early settlers reached their, antipodean home they must have been struck by the absence of green fields gay with buttercups, daisies, cuckoo-flowers, coltsfoot, and oxeyes, and would have laughed at the idea of New Zealand meadows. To many, even yet, it may seem absurd to compare the tussock slopes with the emerald hillsides of Britain. As for wild flowers, there are some who remember regretfully those of the Motherland, and lament that their adopted home has nothing to offer in exchange for the cowslips, primroses, anemones, bluebells, and heather of their youthful days.
Be all this as it may, New Zealand has plenty of natural meadows in a plant-geographical sense, if not in that of our boyhood. For those who will seek them, too, it has also wild flowers that can vie in beauty with those of any other region.
Natural meadows are a distinct expression of climate and soil, and, as stated in the first chapter, forest would cover the whole land were there no inhibitory circumstances. Such, however, exist, the most important being altitude, the nature of the soil, and climatic influences, especially constant wind. The tussock meadows of the Canterbury Plain, of the tableland near Mount Ruapehu, and of the slopes of so many of our mountains are expressions of the above fact. So, too, are the alpine meadows above the forest-line (fig. 38).page 85
In the wet districts meadows are lacking, except on the high mountains In the drier parts, such as eastern Hawke's Bay, eastern and central Otago, and the Canterbury Plain, they are much in evidence, and, where the soil is very stony, may even merge into deserts.
* Plant-geographically our " meadows " really belong to different biological categories, such as steppe, fell-field, &c.; but, as these terms are by no means clearly defined, I still use the term " meadow," as in my writings in general.
Evolution of Meadows.
A very common feature of many parts of New Zealand, especially in the mountainous regions, is a broad, shingly river-bed, bounded on either side by high terraces, or sometimes filling up a narrow valley. The water of these rivers is not usually confined to one channel, but meanders in several narrow streams over the wide stony bed, which in consequence is in places quite dry, and ready for plant-colonists. These are not slow to avail themselves of the chance to "take up land," and engage the wind or the birds to convey them to their new holdings, while some even travel by water.
Amongst the earliest settlers are the willow-herbs (Epilobium), thanks to their light seeds furnished each with a tuft of hairs. Various species of Raoulia come in a similar manner, and large, round, mosslike cushions or patches of silver and green result (Raoulia australis, R. tenuicaulis, R. Haastii). Lichens cover the stones with curious markings, and mosses spring up between them. As these earlier plants decay, humus is added to the silty, sandy soil, and various drought-resisting shrubs (Discaria toumatou, Cassinia fulvida, species of Carmichaelia) put in an appearance, together with grass-tussocks. Such shrubs may remain quite isolated, and the tussock become dominant, in which case the shelter will favour the settlement of many small herbaceous plants, including grasses, and a meadow will result. Or, on the other hand, some condition may favour arborescent growth — a natural shrubbery of veronicas, coprosmas, and other shrubs with wiry branches may appear, to be replaced finally by a beech forest. Meadows formed in this manner may be seen in process of evolution in many places, and it was in this way that the great river-made plains, equally with the "fans" of débris at the outlet of creeks, have been colonised by their plant inhabitants. When the forest on a hillside has been burnt, if there are frequent winds, trees cannot be reinstated, and meadow will result. Such fires have been frequent even in the pre-European days. Grasses, especially drought-resisting species, will have a much better chance of growth than trees after a fire, and a meadow will in an astonishingly short time replace the forest. This replacement is page 87quite assured, when in the case of an upland, beech, forest (Nothofagus cliffortioides) the dry leafy floor has been burnt to the soil beneath and, the tree-seeds destroyed, Bearing these facts in mind, and recognising the rain-forest climate of New Zealand, mentioned in Chapter III, it is not impossible that much of the Dominion now treeless, such as Central Otago, was long ago occupied by more or less extensive forests.*
Lowland and Montane Tussock Meadows.
The tussock meadows of the montane regions and, the plains are of great commercial importance. They are, in fact, the home of those vast flocks and herds on which the prosperity of the Dominion so largely depends. The study of their plants is therefore of high economic interest.
Foremost come the grasses, replaced, now in so many cases by those of Europe, and by the host of introduced weeds. Some of these indigenous grasses are most valuable for stock. The tussocks belong especially to two species—Poa caespitosa and Festuca rubra. As a food for stock the poa is not of much moment, but Festuca rubra is of considerable value. The blue-tussock (Poa Colensoi) forms much smaller tussocks than either of the above, and is a most valuable economic grass. Another grass of great importance is the blue-grass (Agropyron scabrum), still more or less abundant in some localities. The various forms of Danthonia pilosa and D. semiannularis are very important indeed, since they will tolerate burning and increase naturally upon the poorest ground, where they are probably of more value than any European grass that can be used. This must not lead the farmer to suppose that "danthonia," as all these different forms are called in the papers and by the seed-merchants, will ever replace rye-grass, cocksfoot, or red-clover in the better land. There, undoubtedly, the European grasses surpass any of the native ones; but these latter owe their importance to their suitability for poor ground and high country.
On the lower meadows certain plants with more or less conspicuous flowers are to be met with. Here are some of the buttercups (Ranun-page 88culus hirtus, R. multiscapus), the slender bluebell (Wahlenbergia gracilis), the pretty Convolvulus erubescens, the creeping Dichondra repens, the yellow Oxalis corniculata, the small daisies (Lagenophora petiolata, L. pumila), and the little Geranium microphyllum.
The Meadows of the High Mountains.
To see the really fine displays of flowers which New Zealand can offer, one must seek the high mountains in the summer-time. Here the meadows are true natural gardens. But to view such in full perfection, those places must be visited to which no grazing animals have had access.
The real subalpine and alpine meadow flora begins on the mountains near the East Cape, and extends over the high summits of both Islands to the hills forming the southern part of Stewart Island. The South Island ranges are much richer in species than those of the North Island; but the closeness of growth in many places on the mountains of the latter, as on the Tararuas, Ruahines, and Kaimanawas, makes up for this difference. The mountains of Nelson, both east and west, are very rich in alpine plants. They contain some of the North Island species, together with others peculiar to themselves, and a large percentage of those found farther to the south. To the east the Kaikoura Mountains form a small but distinct district, having some special societies and a number of peculiar plants, of which the remarkable Helichrysum coralloides (the stout stems with closely pressed woolly white leaves looking not unlike coral, hence the name) and a veronica growing on the face of solid rocks (V. rupicola) may be mentioned. Proceeding southwards, we find that the Alps of Canterbury and Westland, crowned in many instances with perpetual ice and snow, form a barrier between the northern and southern alpine plants. These invade this mountain area on its borders, but it has plants peculiarly its own—e.g., Ranunculus Godleyanus, Helichrysum pauciflorum, Myosotis decora.
The Otago alpine plants differ considerably as to species from those of Canterbury and Westland, and still more from those of Nelson and the North Island. Peculiar species are, Veronica Hectori, Celmisia Pelriei, Aciphylla simplex, Ranunculus Matthewsii,&c. Finally, Stewart Island and the mountains of Southland have much in commonpage 89
These high mountain meadows are by no means closely growing associations of plants. On the contrary, these latter are generally in clumps, or dotted about, the ground between being quite bare, and the amount of bareness is governed by the rainfall. Thus, where the latter is great and the number of rainy days excessive, there is little bare ground except on the steepest slopes and near the mountain-tops, while on the mountains of Stewart Island the meadow is largely made up of bog-plants of the cushion form, through which grows a very strange grass (Danthonia pungens), with extremely rigid and sharp-pointed leaves (fig. 39).
If a foreign botanist, conversant with the alpine plants of other regions, were to visit a high mountain meadow in New Zealand, he would be amazed at the prevalence of white and yellow flowers, and the almost entire lack of reds and blues. His eye would encounter no blue gentians, no pink primulas. He would be much less surprised at seeing plant forms very similar to those of other alpine regions, yet bearing flowers quite different from his old acquaintances—i.e., belonging to other families. This latter fact he would find an admirable illustration of the phenomenon that similar conditions evoke or preserve similar life-forms even in regions widely remote. As for the prevalence of white and yellow flowers, he would possibly have no suggestion of any moment to offer beyond that the white might be adapted for fertilisation at night-time by moths, and that yellow is a most frequent colour amongst flowers everywhere.
But if there is some monotony as far as the colour of our alpine flowers goes, there is none in regard to their form. The herbaceous plants, of the European Alps in many instances die to the ground yearly, whereas those of New Zealand are mostly evergreen. The spear-grasses (Aciphylla) are of the Yucca form. Some are frequently cultivated in European gardens, but others still more handsome are unknown there. Aciphylla Colensoi, var. conspicua, derives its varietal name from the broad band of orange down the centre of each leaf-segment, which renders it an especially striking plant. Aciphylla Monroi, growing a few inches high out of a face of rock, looks not unlike a pigmy palm. A. Dobsoni has leaves of the most intense rigidity.
Fig. 40.—Euphrasia Monroi, growing in bed of Punch-bowl Creek, near where the Arthur's Pass Tunnel is being constructed, surrounded by Raoulia tenuicaulis.
[Photo, L. Cockayne.
Fig. 41.—Veronica linifolia towards centre, Raoulia tenuicaulis on right, and one plant of Angelica Gingidium growing on the latter. Mountain above Arthur's Pass.
[Photo, L. Cockayne.
Fig. 42.—The Mountain-lily (Ranunculus Lyallii), growing on stony ground near source of River Rakaia.
[Photo, M. C. Gudex.
Generic names are frequently hideous, but in Celmisia we have one dainty enough to take a foremost place among those feminine floral appellations now so popular. And well does a race of plants so beautiful deserve a fitting title. On every mountain-side at all seasons it is the celmisias (figs. 43 and 44) that give the characteristic stamp to the meadows, filling the air with aromatic fragrance, and delighting the eye with their beauty of form or abundance of flowers. With one page 95exception, all are true New-Zealanders, and are probably a remnant of the long-vanished meadow plants of sunken southern lands. Two special classes occur—those with fine upright rosettes, and those which trail over a considerable area, forming round mats. Some, again, have quite small rosettes, and form dense, silvery cushions, such as Celmisia sessiliflora and C. argentea (fig. 45). The most handsome of the celmisias is perhaps C. coriacea, a plant with large, stiff, silvery leaves, and flower-heads several inches in diameter.
Fig. 44.—Subalpine Meadow, Arthur's Pass, with colony of Celmisia Armstrongii In background, tussocks of the grass Danthonia Raoulii. In centre, mat of Celmisia discolor var. petiolata.
[Photo, L. Cockayne.
Senecio scorzonerioides, notwithstanding its being burdened with its second name, is one of the most showy of New Zealand plants. The author will never forget the meadows near the source of the River Poulter, gleaming like snowfields with the multitudes of its pure blossoms.
Frequently the meadow is dotted with veronicas and other shrubs. Large breadths of an alpine Astelia are often present, also tall tussock-grasses such as Danthonia Raoulii and D. flavescens.page 96
* Myosotis australis, M. Traversii, M. albo-sericea, M. Monroi. Some have white flowers (M. Cheesemanii, M. explanata), or white with a yellow eye (M. Goyeni, M. petiolata).
The rocks of the alpine summits weathering away, and the rain not being sufficient to bear all the débris into the valleys, an enormous quantity of angular stones collects on the mountain-sides in many places, which may form steep slopes for thousands of feet. As the traveller wearily ascends these "shingle-slips," as they are called, the stones constantly slip beneath his tread, and slide down the slope. Numerous large grasshoppers, grey as the shingle, leap from beneath his feet, an occasional black butterfly flits through the air or rests upon a rock, while overhead may fly screaming that famous bird the kea. All is a scene of utter desolation: it is, in truth, an alpine desert. Yet many of the meadows must have begun their career as shingle-slips, and all transitions may be noted from the one to the other.
To the shingle-slip proper belongs a most peculiar series of plants. They have several characteristics in common. All have long roots and are low-growing. Many are succulent. Most are of a colour similar to the shingle. Some have leaves of rather an indiarubber like texture, and one, at any rate, is covered with an exceedingly woolly mass of hairs. These shingle-slips become burning hot in the sunshine, and yet in the evening of the same day may be icy cold. At some distance below the surface the stones are wet. Here are a few of the plants to be found in such situations: A. stiff-leaved grass (Poa sclerophylla); a buttercup (Ranunculus Haastii); a plant of the carrot family (Aciphyila carnosula); a daisy, jet black, and with stamens like golden pin-heads (Cotula atrata); one of the pink family (Stellaria Roughii); the curious and sweet-scented penwiper plant (Notothlaspi rosulatum) (fig. 46); and a fleshy - leaved lobelia (L. Roughii).A piripiri, too (Acaena glabra), is almost confined to this peculiar station. These plants do not grow closely side by side. They are few and far between, and without close observation the slopes look quite bare. Occasionally a trailing - veronica (V. epacridea) sprawls over the stones, and is frequently accompanied by a smaller species of the whipcord form, V. tetrasticha.
Finally, the New Zealand, edelweiss must be mentioned, of which there are two species, Helichrysum grandiceps and H. Leontopodium. Both are exquisite, and surpass their celebrated. Swiss namesake, Leontopodium alpinum. Perhaps H. Leontopodium (fig. 50), when in-full bloom, as it may be seen in late January on the Tararua and Ruahine Mountains, is the most beautiful plant in New Zealand. A near relation, but much more common, is H. bellidioides (fig. 51).
Adaptations of the Alpine Plants.
Fig. 49.—Veronica spathulata, growing on scoria desert, base of Ngauruhoe.
Lands Department.] [Photo, L. Cockaync.
Fig. 51.—Helichrysum bellidioides, showing the white bracts of the flower-heads, which look like petals. Stony ground near Arthur's Pass.
[Photo, L. Cockayne.
Roots of an extraordinary length form an excellent provision for obtaining an abundant water-supply at all seasons, and these are very frequent amongst the alpine plants. But, above all things, the leaf, in structure and form, shows drought-resisting contrivances. The most common of all is a mat of hairs on the under-surface of the leaf, so characteristic of the celmisias (fig. 43). Some, again, such as the Aciphyllas* (spear-grasses), have extremely rigid, vertical leaves, which both resist the wind and can never receive the direct rays of the sun.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the New Zealand alpine plants, and one which is not so well marked in the alpine plants of Europe, but is seen in those of the Andes, is the capability of one portion of the living plant to turn into peat, while its remaining part grows vigorously, and even uses its own dead self as food material. This habit is not specially in harmony with an alpine climate, but rather with absence of sunlight and prevalence of rain and mist—just such a climate as exists in the subantarctic islands to-day. Most of the celmisias are surrounded at the bases of their leaves by quite a thickness of rotting leaves, and the same may be seen in a very large percentage of the New Zealand alpine plants. Such an adaptation perhaps indicates that our alpine flora originated not on the high mountains at all, but in the sunless and wet regions of the south.page 104
Fig. 52.—The Dwarf-pine (Dacrydium laxifolium), which on the dry pumice soil has assumed the cushion-form Veronica tetragona, a Whipcord-veronica growing on it above, and small plants also of Celmisia longifolia. Volcanie plateau of North Island, at 3,700 ft. altitude.
Lands Department.] [Photo, L. Cockayne.
* In this book the plants generally referred to Ligusticum are included in Aciphylla. In this sentence only Aciphylla in the more restricted sense is intended.