If One Tree Hill became simply Maungakiekie, people might stop insisting that something is planted on top of it.

If Mayor Len Brown has his way, a new specimen tree will soon grace the top of One Tree Hill. A mature pohutukawa, he told a local paper, flown into place by helicopter. Most other species "would struggle up there, but a pohutukawa would grow anywhere".

Hopefully he has a sponsor in mind to fund this arboreal vision, for looking after trees at the top of One Tree Hill has proven neither easy nor cheap in the past.

In 2001, the Specimen Tree Company advised Auckland City Council that a full-sized tree was unlikely to survive transplantation on the inhospitable site. That was after seven years trying to keep one old pine alive after the chainsaw attack by a Maori radical in 1994. Eight years of caring and eventually getting rid of the remains of the old pine cost Auckland ratepayers at least $564,000. Councillors were told a replacement tree or trees would cost a minimum of $40,000 a year to tend and protect - a total of $800,000 over 20 years.

Undaunted, locally sourced pohutukawa and totara seeds were dispatched to the council nursery for propagation. The experts advised a grove of small plants about 1m tall, huddled together, would offer the best chance of at least one surviving the harsh hilltop environment.


But as the day of ceremonial planting approached, the Ngati Whatua refused to join in. They feared that sharing planting honours with other local tribes, both Pakeha and Maori, might dilute their claim to tangata whenua status during the pending Treaty settlement negotiations. The replanting was put on hold.

Now, with a final settlement to be signed in Parliament by year's end, tree planting is back in vogue. Of course there is a simpler solution. Abandon the Pakeha name that pioneer and former mayor John Logan Campbell dubbed the hill early in 1840 and remove the raison d'etre for planting a tree.

Part of the planned Treaty settlement deal will give equal status to the old Maori names of the various cones, Maungawhau/Mt Eden, for example, and Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill. How much simpler and cheaper to just drop the One Tree Hill part altogether. Then the fixation on planting another tree would fade away.

Historically, the hill was known as Te-totara-a-ahu or "The totara that stands alone." This was in honour of a totara stick used in the cutting of the umbilical of a high-born boy. Legend says when planted atop the buried placenta it grew into a sacred landmark. That was around 1600.

It's unclear whether that's the tree that attracted Dr Campbell's attention. An 1847 report records it as being "a solitary potukawa [sic] tree which has probably withstood the blasts of centuries, crowning the summit". This is reinforced in an item in the Daily Southern Cross, in August 1875, which records that "in the earliest days of Auckland a majestic pohutukawa crowned the very summit - the very crater top - until the fell hand of some Goth on Onehunga's shore levelled the grand landmark - for firewood's sake! We, in charity, only hope that nothing worse than the ghost of that tree, with creaking and moaning branches, hovers over and disturbs with a retributive justice his nights dreams."

This comes in a story by an unnamed scribe reporting he was startled to see what appeared to be a house being erected on the crater summit. He discovered Dr Campbell at work building a shelter to protect seedlings he was planting in an attempt "to restore the ancient landmark," which had caused him to rename the hill in the first place.

Dr Campbell first tried a totara and when that died, a puriri, surrounding the latter with a shelter belt of hardy pinus insignis. The puriri also died, but the five foreign pines survived. Another native was planted around 1910 but died as well. The park board dithered through the 1930s about planting another totara but did nothing. By 1940, only two pines remained.

In August 1949, the board finally planted a young totara, but by April 1952 it was in a terminal state. Talk of a sturdy replacement came to nothing. Ten years later, one of the two remaining pines was vandalised. After nearly 90 years, the cone was truly One Tree Hill once more.

Perhaps the hill has been trying to tell us it would rather not have another tree on top, thank you very much.