Aotearoa New Zealand is home to a collection of extraordinary, charismatic birds.
Nowhere else have birds evolved to become the ecological equivalent of giraffes, kangaroos, sheep, possums and tigers.
But what about our charismatic plants?
As for avians, New Zealand's geographical isolation has led our flora down a unique evolutionary path. These are no wall flowers: tree-sized daisies, giant buttercups, forget-me-knots up to 1.5 metres tall. Our country contributes to the world some of the oldest primeval forests, the largest type of moss, the highest density of liverworts.
Mistletoes are the showiest of our native flowers, of which there are eight different species. They were once a Christmas-time feature wrapping beech trees in blooms of scarlet or yellow, fallen flowers showering the forest floor. Scarlet mistletoe blossoms once graced our former $2 note — a now relic of the past — and the plant itself is at risk of following suit.
An amateur plant collector in the late 1800s paints a picture of the mistletoe's decline: "Blossoms are so abundant as to almost hide the foliage. Fully 10 per cent of the large trees have one or more mistletoe growing on them. When cutting a line for the Wanganui-Taupo road, in September and October 1882, my men felled many trees on which the plant was growing."
In 2013 a Wanganui tramping club exploring the Waitotara Forest stumbled across a spectacular display on private land bordering the forest. Its existence could be attributed to the landowner's determination to control possums that gorge on mistletoe.
Pests that predate birds — rats, cats and stoats — are also prime suspects in the case of the declining mistletoe, because mistletoe has evolved an unusual pollination relationship with native birds.
It took an ecologist perched in a tree to crack the code of this peculiar relationship. Jenny Ladley was baffled by the unopened flowers on the forest floor. How does pollination occur?
"I rigged up a rope and jumar and hoisted myself into the beech branches. I didn't have long to wait before a tui arrived …. when it found a ripe flower, the tui grabbed the tip in its beak and gave it a squeeze. The four petals instantly sprang open, flicking pollen from the ripe anthers on to the tui's head and giving the bird access to a pool of nectar inside the base of the flower."
Native bees also have this knack of opening sealed flowers.
Under the rata, podocarp and broadleaf canopy of Whanganui National Park lies another charismatic plant: kotukutuku, the world's largest fuchsia. It is distinguished by its orange, papery bark; colour-coded flowers for pollination efficiency; and bright blue pollen that marks each bird that visits.
For Māori, when kotukutuku flowers appeared in September, it was a sign that it was time to plant spring crops. Its berries, konini, were cherished equally by Māori and Pākehā for food, dyes and rongoa. Old-time publications mention tangy fuchsia berry puddings and preserves, as well as ailments for digestive concerns.
Nowhere is the loss of biodiversity more pronounced than in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Eighty per cent of our plants are endemic. If they are lost here, they are lost entirely, along with all their histories and unsolved scientific mysteries.
We are in a battle to save our wondrous backyard. If we control our pests, not only do we bring back the birds, but we bring back the blooms.
There is an old whakatauki that asks: I whea koe i te ngahorotanga o te rau o te kotukutuku? Where were you at the time of leaves falling from the kotukutuku?
There's a fight to be fought, and there's work to be done.
- Anne-Elise Smithson is an environmentalist from Auckland and Whanganui region enthusiast.
Last week's Conservation Comment featured a picture captioned wrongly. That purporting to be convolvulus was actually blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica).