Chatham Islands: Unforgettable blooming memories

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles goes flora spotting on the wild and windy Chatham Islands and finds the forget-me-nots live up to their name.

Forget-me-not flowers on the coastline on Chatham Island. Photo / Jim Eagles
Forget-me-not flowers on the coastline on Chatham Island. Photo / Jim Eagles

If you want to grow really superb specimens of the lovely Chatham Island forget-me-not - sometimes also known as the Chatham Island lily - then find yourself a pilot whale ... or failing that an old Land Rover body.

That's my conclusion after a springtime visit to the Chathams when the forget-me-nots were in magnificent full bloom around the wild, wonderful coast.

Surprisingly, it wasn't just forget-me-nots adding colour to the landscape while I was there. Contrary to what you might expect from a cold, windswept group of islands, the plants here are not only bigger but more colourful than their equivalents in New Zealand.

In a few days of walking round the coast we also came across whole carpets of the lovely pink Chatham islands ice plant, lots of pink and white pouteretere, a local pink and white gentian, a delicate white sand daphne, brilliant yellow flowers and berries on the hokataka, a maroon chrysanthemum, which apparently is not a native but is growing everywhere, and plenty more I couldn't identify.

But, of course, the stars of the show are those wonderful blue forget-me-nots. Naturally there are lots of them growing in gardens in the Chathams just as they are in gardens around New Zealand.

One of the most beautiful displays of these clusters of blue flowers was in a flower bed at the front of the little Kaingaroa School in the northeast corner of the main island.

Quite a few forget-me-nots were also blooming around the capital, Waitangi, where the Chatham Islands Heritage and Restoration Trust has started a planting programme as part of its work to preserve the native fauna and flora.

But the finest cultivated display I found in my week on the island was at Admiral's Farm where we went for a barbecue hosted by trust chair Lois Croon and her husband Valentine.

Over the years they've developed a huge garden filled with all sorts of trees and plants - mostly native to the Chathams - including a blaze of forget-me-nots, most flowering in the typical brilliant blue, but also some with pink blooms and even a few white ones, a variety thought to be extinct in the wild. So what's the secret for growing successful forget-me-notes?

"You see them in the wild around the shoreline," said Lois, "so when we plant them here we put on a lot of seaweed and water them with a bit of salt water so they'll feel at home."

Of course cultivated flowers are all very well but we were keen to see forget-me-nots blooming in the wild and Valentine, who recently walked right round the island, had a tale to tell of a small island accessible on foot at low tide that had a magnificent display.

His son Val Jnr, who was guiding us round the Chathams, had tried to take an earlier tour group to this magical place but got lost. However, this time, aided by more detailed directions, he found it.

After walking through an extraordinary landscape of green paddocks dotted with massive rock outcrops and brown patches of peat where it seemed nothing could grow we came to the island of forget-me-nots.

We couldn't find any flowers at first but there was a lot else to be seen.

According to a Department of Conservation leaflet on endangered plants, this area was also the only place in the world where the Chatham Island variant of Cook's scurvy grass - which the great navigator fed to his crew to stop them getting scurvy - so Val offered a beer to the first person to spot some. With an incentive like that at stake it was no great surprise that I quickly found this incredibly rare plant.

The shoreline of the island was also lined with an amazing array of flotsam, including crayfish pots and fishing floats, plus piles of huge whalebones. Moriori tradition had it that blackfish - pilot whales - were summoned ashore by the spirit of anyone who died and Val said there were regular whale strandings in this part of the coastline.

Further round the island we came across a big colony of New Zealand fur seals, a species nearly wiped out on the Chathams by the sealers of a couple of hundred years ago, but now recovering well. They seemed entirely unafraid of humans, allowing me to walk quite close to photograph their antics, and a few particular curious pups followed us when we left.

And, sure enough, at the tip of the island we did indeed find lots of forget-me-nots, flowering superbly amid the debris from the sea and the rich piles of seaweed.

But, as it happens, those weren't the best wild plants found in the course of several days exploring the magnificant coastline of the Chathams.

There were a few flourishing in what may once have been gardens at Mission Bay, where a few stone ruins, an old whaling pot and some giant skulls mark the site where American whalers established a base around 1800 and some German missionaries founded a mission station in 1830.

Another particularly impressive bed of forget-me-nots on the seafront at the little settlement of Kaingaroa was growing round the abandoned body of a Land Rover.

But the finest flowers I saw were found quite unexpectedly at Wharekauri - once a township, but today just a farm base - en route to a walk around Cape Young, the northernmost point on the island.

At the mouth of a small creek at the start of our walk we came across the partially decomposed bodies of several recently beached pilot whales. Many of the whales were actually lying at the base of Chatham Island forget-me-nots. And those forget-me-nots were flowering brilliantly.

CHECKLIST

Further information: Pukekohe Travel will be running two all-inclusive tours to the Chatham Islands for the Forget-me-not Festival in October. Ring 0800 785 386.

Jim Eagles was taken to the Chatham Islands by Pukekohe Travel.

- NZ Herald

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