There's nothing like going for a walk on a crisp winter's day and, in the colder months, the native trees of Aotearoa come into their own as deciduous exotics drop their leaves. Fortunately, some city forefathers celebrated plants unique to this country and a few great parks now feature magnificent trees. My favourite parks in Auckland for tree spotting are Cornwall Park (Maungakiekie), Mt Eden (Maungawhau) and Monte Cecilia Park. The grounds at Unitec in Mt Albert also feature magnificent old trees, exotic and native.
Most of Cornwall Park's trees were planted from the 1920s, but some date back more than 150 years. Puriri Drive was planted with 250 puriri trees in 1927 and Pohutukawa Drive had 400 pohutukawa planted two years later. A native arboretum was established at Cornwall Park in 1965. Puriri Drive also features trees rarely seen in a public setting, such as kohekohe, tanekaha and taraire.
In parks, native trees have less competition for light compared with life in natural forest habitats.
They have more opportunity to grow to their genetic potential, showcasing unique shape, structure and size. In many cases, if there's room and the park is more informal, pruning shouldn't be necessary, except for the occasional removal of broken or dangerous limbs.
If you are considering planting feature trees, observing native trees in parks is a great opportunity to see how the small potted specimen you are putting in the ground will grow in the years to come. The variation in form, colour tone and density gives us a large palette to work with. Many native trees hold special significance to Maori, in legends and in traditional and contemporary use, including in traditional Maori medicine. Researching this history will add depth to your choice.
From a design perspective, trees can evoke different emotional responses. Rimu and totara are heavy, dense trees. They block out light, but their dark shapes give a sense of calm solemnity when counterbalanced with natural rock formations and soft grasses, as can be seen on Mt Eden. The foliage and tree form of rimu give a weeping effect, the prickly long-leaf stems look almost soft to the touch. Puriri, karaka and puka have a subtropical feel. They are broadleaf trees with large, shiny leaves, they produce colourful fruit, and work well in large sites as a backdrop to lively subtropical plantings.
If you have a small garden and want to avoid hefty aborist fees, be realistic about how large your tree will be in the future before you plant it. Clever formative pruning at an early age can keep trees more compact. A garden I worked in for many years had two magnificent totara specimens at least 100 years old. They were huge, and required serious arboricultural work to allow light into the rest of the garden. If the original gardener had said, "these trees may get huge, let's think about this", the trees may have been hedged or pleached instead. Yes, the tree would never have reached its potential, but it would have spared the tree heavy chainsaw action, which can allow disease to enter the tree. At the very least, the tree's shape is spoiled.
A good example of clever design with natives is at the Hamilton Gardens. There is an elegant, dark reflection pool in a secluded formal courtyard. Surrounding bone-coloured paving is an equally dark and moody tall, clipped totara hedge. These dense trees are perfectly suited to this treatment because of the denseness of their prickly dark olive-green foliage.
You can tell if trees will suit a formal or clipped design, based on their performance in exposed situations. Manuka's warped sculptural forms and "wind-trimmed" hedge-like foliage are a feature on exposed coastal cliffs. I took this as a lead to plant our manuka hedge, and being aware of its tendency to develop a woody trunk, the lower parts are hidden behind a stone wall.
The special trees of this country - the children of Tane - will continue to be of spiritual significance to Maori (and many non-Maori) and wow visitors to the country with their diversity. Take a fresh look next time you're out on a winter walk and be inspired.
• Donate a native or fruit tree to your local school. Get involved in winter tree planting at home or with a community group or revegetation project. Now is a perfect time to plant trees, shrubs and hedges. For tree-planting events, check out ecoevents.org.nz, or conservationvolunteers.co.nz
• Plan your garden for the year ahead and mark a 2013-14 calendar with the Maori lunar planting guide.
• Take a walk on the (not too) wild side and admire the trees in a park or forest.
Make a photographic journal of the interesting plants you encounter. Hold large leaves up to the light to illuminate their colour and vein patterns.
These images are perfect for turning into custom cards or artworks.
• Learn more about trees and get vocal about tree protection - join the Tree Council.