Floating down the Oparara River on a rubber Lilo in the heat of summer, you could easily fancy yourself to be in the heart of Borneo. The deep groove the river has carved in the limestone of north-west Nelson evokes Conan Doyle’s lost world, and it’s not hard to imagine that crocodiles once hunted here. Indeed, as tropical-looking plants and ancient geology combine to weave a subtle spell, you may find yourself wondering if that’s really just a bit of driftwood up ahead.
The tropical connection isn’t altogether illusory. The nikau palms which line the river’s banks may have been part of a cargo of plants and animals from the Malayo-Pacific region that began arriving in New Zealand when dinosaurs were still chasing each other up and down what is today Queen Street. There were coconuts here then, and probably crocodiles, but that was before the Big Chill. The crocs and coconuts didn’t survive the ice ages, but nikau palms came through. Now they make the beachfront at Punakaiki look like Fiji. But don’t be fooled. A glance at the surfers in their 10 mm rubber suits will tell you how far from the equator you really are. Indeed, the New Zealand nikau palm, Rhopalostylis sapida, is the most southerly growing palm tree in the world.
I have a friend who runs a garden nursery in Norfolk, specialising in hardy exotics. It’s a big thing over there now—tropical-looking plants which can survive Britain’s cold, wet, dark winters. Nikau might be perfect for him. I know they grow well on the island of Tresco, which basks in the Gulf Stream just off Cornwall. Would they survive in East Anglia, though, where the winter wind can blow straight in from Siberia?
To find out more I approached botanist Alan Esler.
“How hardy are they?” I asked.
“They’re a lowland species. That should tell you something,” he replied. But he acknowledged that nikau growing on Banks Peninsula or at Hokitika, on the West Coast, are likely to be more frost-tolerant than those found further north. He mentioned other regional differences. North of Auckland nikau have shorter, more slender trunks than their southern relatives. They rarely reach more than 15 m in height, while specimens exceeding 20 m are not uncommon further south.
In urban settings, nikau have been sadly overlooked in favour of their larger, brasher relative the Phoenix palm. All the more reason, then, for architect Ian Athfield to choose the indigenous”palm as a design element for” “Wellington’s Civic Square.” ““I’ve always liked nikau,” says Athfield. “They’re elegant, strong and representative of the Wellington region. It was also an interesting technical challenge to detail them in metal.””
The leaves of northern nikau are shorter, too, and stand more upright than the graceful arching style adopted in the south. With their more robust configuration, nikau of the south look a lot tougher than the effete northerners, and they are capable of withstanding far harsher conditions. It is rare to find northern nikau growing out in the open, but, wind-lashed and sun-scorched, the cousins from down south will hang on for generations in farm paddocks long after any sheltering forest canopy has faded from living memory.
The most southerly and probably hardiest of all nikau are those found growing on the Chatham Islands. They have long been isolated from the mainland, and many botanists believe they should be recognised as a distinct species, like the nikau of some even more remote rocky outposts. Rhopalostylis baueri, on Norfolk Island, and Rhopalostylis cheesemanii, in the Kermadecs, closely resemble the southern race of Rhopalostylis sapida, except that their leaves are more spreading, their berries are larger and the plants are said to be faster growing.
But I suspect even Chatham Islands nikau would not survive the British winter. The Brits may have to content themselves with New Zealand cabbage trees, which are commonly known as “Torbay palms,” though they are not palms at all.
Strangely, there hasn’t always been the same enthusiasm for New Zealand natives at home in Aotearoa as overseas. The exotic Phoenix palm was always the plant of choice if you wanted to make a big majestic statement in front of your council chambers, railway station or RSA. Municipal plantings of nikau have been slower to catch on, but a new generation of landscape designers is committed to raising the profile of our native palm at street level.
Along K’ Road, Auckland’s funkiest boulevard, the sun sets behind St Kevin’s Arcade, and out front the fronds of a municipal nikau extend skeletal fingers into the night. Its ivory spadix, or flower stalk, really does resemble a bony hand and conjures a ghostly resonance with St Kevin himself. A bird is said to have laid an egg in the saint’s outstretched hands as he extended them in prayer, and he held the pose until the chick was safely fledged.
What would the saint have made of the indignities suffered by a nikau outside McDonald’s, around the corner from Queen Street? Its skinny trunk has been burned by cigarettes, carved, gummed and graffitied. Being of a charitable disposition, Kevin might have inclined to the view that there was some kind of tough-love process going on here. Perhaps the young tree is being battle-hardened for life on the street. But, spindly as it is, this palm is no troubled adolescent. Nikau are very slow growers. It takes a good 15 years for them to form the beginnings of a trunk, so a two-metre specimen may be 20 or 30 years old. It can take them the best part of a century to reach 10 m.
Ian Athfield, architect of Wellington’s Civic Square, couldn’t wait that long, so he had nikau handcrafted out of nickel and steel. I notice a football lodged in the crown of one of the palms, as if to remedy the deficiency in the nikau nut department. In The Natural World of the Maori, ethnologist Margaret Orbell states that the word “nikau” is derived from the Tahitian word for the leaf of the coconut palm, which the nikau closely resembles sans nuts.
Botanist Geoff Park, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, surmises that the nikau’s nutlessness would have been a severe disappointment to the country’s first Polynesian settlers, but notes that the plant’s other useful attributes would have offset the absence of edible fruit. Maori found that the pith had mild laxative properties, and a drink made from the sap is said to have eased the pain of childbirth. The fronds made an excellent waterproof thatch for buildings and could be woven into baskets and mats. Food was wrapped in them for cooking.
The young, unexpanded leaf shoots were themselves eaten, raw or cooked. This was the “palm cabbage” that was served up to the crew of Endeavour. The flower clusters hidden beneath the mature leaf bases were also eaten. On special occasions, or in extremis, Maori would prepare a meal from the central leaf bud—the succulent heart of the nikau. Early settlers called this dish “millionaire’s salad,” because removal of the heart cost the palm its life. The tastiness of the nikau is recognised in the plant’s Latin name: sapida means “savoury.”
Park tells me about some puttees made from a pair of the tough, shield-like leaf bases which are in the ethnographic collection at Te Papa. Their origin remains a mystery, but Park speculates they may have done service in the gum-fields, protecting some old digger’s shins from snags and blackberry thorns.
Nikau technology continues to evolve, and now it circulates through cyberspace. On the Internet I find a picture of a beaming Sea Scout showing how to use the tough midrib of a nikau leaf to make a splint should some hapless shipmate break an arm or leg.
The leaves of the nikau are, of course, responsible for its distinctive profile. Nikau have been called the shaving-brush palm or feather-duster palm because of the way the leaves are held so erect. There are around 14 leaves on show at any one time, with their shafts spaced around the crown at regular 135-degree intervals. The precision of this geometrical arrangement lends the nikau a symmetry more pronounced than that of other palms.
The smooth, green bulge at the base of the crown is another distinctive nikau feature. It is formed by the numerous overlapping leaf bases, each one of which completely encircles the trunk of the palm. The bases fit snugly one inside the next like the leaves of a leek.
Mature leaves are shed between October and May. The outermost leaf, being the oldest, is the first to go. The leaf base splits down the middle and leaves a neat circular scar round the trunk as it falls away. It’s tempting to imagine that counting these rings provides a measure of the age of a palm, but it’s not that simple. Between one and five leaves may be shed in a single season, and then you have to remember to add up to 20 years for the time it takes the average nikau to form a trunk.
One of the best places in the country to see nikau is the South Island’s West Coast. There they grow in the sort of setting and at the level of abundance that would have been common in pre-land-clearance days.
For the first 30 or 40 km south of Westport, on State Highway 6, the inland forest has a rather ravaged look. Gorse and manuka scrub cover the scars in a landscape torn up by mining and forestry. There’s no sign of any nikau until I hit the coast just north of the Fox River. Then, crossing into Paparoa National Park, the scenery changes dramatically. Luxuriant forest smudged with crimson rata blossom rolls down from blunt-nosed peaks. Nikau and tree ferns crowd the road as it winds around precipitous limestone bluffs. On the seaward side the forest plunges over the edge of a cliff, until finally a dense grove of nikau breaks out onto a sandy beach.
After crossing the Pororari River, the road runs along the foot of a massive bluff, now turning red-gold in the late-afternoon light. Nikau fringe a golden beach where surfers ride the nor’west swells that sweep in from the Tasman Sea. In the visitor’s book at the Department of Conservation information office in Punakaiki, one awestruck tourist has written of the view: “I almost drove off the road.” I’d go along with that, though I feel the more phlegmatic entry “Good quality rain. Nice pies” provides a sensible note of caution given the Coast’s reputation for weather and offers a useful indication of the highlights of local cuisine.
The following morning breaks warm and clear. In the Pancake Rocks scenic reserve, on Dolomite Point, the blowholes are giving an explosive performance. A low mist hangs over the coastal scrub, and, backlit by the morning sun, little groups of nikau stand out along the ridges amongst the flax.
Nikau line the path to the blowhole-viewing positions, and the broad-beamed leaf bases of these fine West Coast specimens are particularly rounded and shiny. They have a tumescent, almost pregnant look about them that isn’t altogether misleading. Concealed beneath the lowest leaf, the coral-pink flower buds are swelling. Around the next bend one of the nikau has shucked off its lowest leaf, and from beneath it a rosy inflorescence erupts into the world through a diaphanous sheath made from a pair of boat-shaped inner leaves. The effect is positively gynaecological.
A flower cluster forms at the base of each leaf of a nikau palm, but only about a third of the clusters develop. In those that do, the finger-like branches of the spadix bear hundreds of tiny male and female flowers arranged in ménages à trois, with two “boys” for every “girl.” The musky, sweet scent attracts thousands of pollinating insects as well as nectar-hungry tui, bellbirds and silvereyes.
Once the male flowers have shed all of their pollen they fall off, leaving the fertilised female flowers to swell and ripen. It takes about 18 months for the berries to fully mature, so one year’s unripe green ones and the previous year’s ripe red fruit are often seen on the same plant.
Blowholes and nikau palms—the two icons of Punakaiki—are celebrated in the postcard rack of the gift shop opposite the reserve. Nikau seeds lie scattered over the sundeck of the café next door. Sitting in the shade of a nikau with a coffee and a pie, I gather a handful. Some are still covered in a thin coat of wrinkled red flesh, but foot traffic has skinned most of them, leaving just the bullet-hard kernel. Passage through the alimentary canal of a New Zealand pigeon, or kereru, would have the same effect. When the early settlers ran out of proper ammunition, they sometimes used these pellets as birdshot—probably to shoot pigeons.
The availability of good coffee isn’t the only development in Punakaiki since I was first here in the late 1980s. Holiday homes, hostels and retreats are springing up on both sides of the Pororari River, and just south of Dolomite Point is an even more substantial hotel development.
With a glint in their eyes, the land agents and developers are quick to point out that the West Coast climate is changing, becoming hotter and drier, modishly Mediterranean. For Punakaiki read Monte Carlo, they seem to be saying.
But dropping down over Razorback Point onto the Barrytown flats, I draw comfort from the fact that the march of progress seems to have been halted in its tracks. As I coast past the “absolute beachfront” dairy farms, a particularly imposing group of nikau out in one of the paddocks evokes a strong sense of déjà vu. Anyone familiar with the work of artist Stanley Palmer would recognise this landscape. Palmer speaks of the nikau here as sentinels. Standing firm, they watch over a timeless landscape, the idealised version of the West Coast that has embedded itself in our collective unconscious. I wonder how much longer they can withstand the powerful forces ranged against them.
In his book Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life, Geoff Park says that there are really only two places left on the West Coast where you can walk out of protected sand-plain forest onto a wild beach. One of them, the Truman Track at Punakaiki, is an almost obligatory stop-off for every campervan, tour bus and family car that comes through here. I would be surprised if the other has had any visitors at all in the last 12 months—apart from a lot of tui, bellbirds and pigeons.
The Nikau Scenic Reserve is a 100 ha fragment of sand-plain forest that lies a couple of kilometres south of Punakaiki, just beyond the spot which was the inspiration for Stanley Palmer’s Towards the Sea—Punakaiki 1997. Astonishingly, the winter bird counts in this tiny reserve are higher than those in any other bit of lowland forest in the Paparoa region. The birds come to feast on nikau berries and the nectar of flax and rata, which they find in abundance here.
Park describes lying on the forest floor and looking up to watch pigeons “grazing their way through the epiphytic delicatessen overhead.” Sand-plain forest is now recognised as one of the most species-rich, fertile and ecologically diverse types of habitat in the country—and we’ve almost lost it all. This fragment survived into the late 20th century only because dairy farmers thought it was too wet to be worth the trouble of clearing.
Then somebody found out that it was sitting on top of one of the largest deposits of illmenite—titanium ore—in the world. In 1984, the bulldozers were all set to move in. A mining company had made a deal with the National Parks and Reserves Authority to trade the nikau reserve for a parcel of upland forest the company had no further interest in. A small group of biologists and conservationists took their objections to this cosy little arrangement to Wellington, the upshot being that a new Labour government, keen to demonstrate its environmental credentials, quashed the deal and protected the forest remnant.
But the threat to the reserve hasn’t retreated altogether. Westland Illmenite still has a site office almost opposite the reserve and has bought up the dairy farms on either side, including the paddock with the Stanley Palmer nikau. There’s $100 million dollars’ worth of titanium under those palm trees, and a change in the market for titanium or a shift in the political climate could bring the bulldozers back at any moment.
I arrive at the reserve in the late afternoon. It’s so small I don’t expect it to take very long to explore. There’s no sign of any entrance in the tangled green wall of nikau, mahoe, akeake and a dozen other species, all loosely tied in at the base with a net of supplejack. There’s no boardwalk here, no dispenser of explanatory leaflets complete with map. In fact, there isn’t even a track.
Nevertheless, I decide to push my way in 50 m or so just for a look-see. The bright green trunks of the nikau are almost luminous in the subterranean shade of this crazy log-jam of a forest. After attempting to capture something of the rather haunted atmosphere of the place on film, I fold away the tripod and start making my way back to the road. It seems harder going than it did on the way in. Drenched in sweat, stumbling and getting snarled up in creepers, I spend as much time crawling on all fours as I do in anything approaching an upright position. It’s like going through human evolution in reverse. Stupid not to have brought water, I think, but imagining I’m going to be out of here soon, I find I’m already eagerly anticipating that cold beer hitting the back of the throat at Punakaiki.
Twenty minutes later I realise with a frisson of panic that I’m hopelessly bushed. Stopping in my tracks, I listen for traffic on the road. Nothing. The forest smothers everything, even the surf pounding on the beach just a few hundred metres away. All I hear is the sound of my own heavy breathing.
A length of pink ribbon marker dangling from a branch across a short stretch of open water beckons me onward. Wading across, I pick up what I suppose to be an old possum hunter’s trail. It’s quite hard to follow, and now and again I have to backtrack to find the next bit of ribbon. Then it runs out completely, the last bit of ribbon looped through the eye socket of a possum skull.
It will be dark soon, and it occurs to me that no one knows I’m here. What if I break a leg or something? I imagine the embarrassment of starving to death in one of the world’s smallest wilderness areas. New plan. I must climb a tree to see where the sun is setting. If I follow the westering sun I should eventually hit the beach. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. Half an hour later, I’m crawling over beach cobbles embedded in the surface of an ancient dune. Wading across a lagoon, I break through a final thicket of gorse and flax onto a wild driftwood-strewn beach. With my bloodstained clothes in shreds I must look like Ben Gunn, but feel like Sir Ed Hillary.
Anyone who has walked the Heaphy Track will have memories of nikau, although they don’t really come into the picture until you’re on the last leg—at about the same time as sandflies start to make their presence felt. You begin to spot them in amongst the rimu and rata on the descent to the Heaphy River. They become more common as you approach the rivermouth, and when the track finally reaches sea level you find yourself walking along great avenues of them growing right down onto the beach.
Looking back over the forest rolling down to the deserted palm-fringed shore, you may feel a curious reluctance to leave. At Scotts Beach, a scatter of driftwood shelters artfully thatched with nikau fronds testify to the many travellers who have lingered here. But when you’re finally ready to cross the Kohaihai Saddle back to civilisation, the Heaphy finishes in style. At the end of the trail is the largest grove of nikau in the South Island. They are so closely packed that there is little room for anything else—just the odd rimu old and ugly enough to put up with the shoving from a lot of boisterous young palm trees. In flood, the Kohaihai regularly spills across the sandy river flat, but getting their feet wet isn’t a problem for nikau. In fact, the silt dumped around their roots by the floodwaters appears to give them an energy boost.
If you sit amongst them for a while, you’ll hear the frequent clunk of a falling frond. You wouldn’t want to be underneath, but even if you were a very unlucky tramper and the solid leaf base hit you dead on, it might break your nose but not your skull. Compare that with the 150 people a year said to be killed by falling coconuts and you may be glad that nikau only produce a lot of indigestible berries.
On the forest floor the fallen leaves become part of the mulch that nurtures thousands of nikau seedlings, often forming a dense mat. The majority of seedlings are doomed to become compost before ever reaching maturity. If only they could get away to a less crowded nursery, their chances of survival would be much improved—which, of course, is the service the pigeons provide: a food-fordispersal arrangement.
Eighty-year-old farmer Joffre Lowe remembers a time when the pigeon population was much larger than it is today. When he roamed these forests in the 1940s and ’50s, the birds were legion, he says, but he might go for weeks on end without seeing another person.
I stop by Lowe’s cottage to ask him about a nikau grove near the “Welcome to Karamea” sign on the Kohaihai–Karamea road. Every summer’s day dozens of campervans storm past it in a dust cloud. I want to find out how this grove has managed to hold out for so long.
“Did you ever think of chopping them down?” I ask.
The idea seems to strike him as absurd. “They’re shade for the cattle. They like to rub up against them,” he says. But alongside these utilitarian considerations I think I detect a deep-seated affection.
George Harris, who sold the nikau paddock to Lowe in 1952, evidently shared this feeling for the trees. Clearing the land back in 1910, he must also have made a conscious decision to leave the nikau alone. Nearly a century later, Lowe does admit to having to lose one or two during the period of his stewardship. “The old horse got in the habit of passing a bit close to one of ’em. Clipped my knee on it every time. And when we put in the electric fence a couple of ’em kept dropping leaves on it, shorting it out,” he says.
On my way back to Karamea I stop off for a closer look at Lowe’s section. Some of the nikau are loaded with kiekie and other epiphytes, clinging like memories of the ancestral forest. The growth is concentrated in just one area, about a third of the way up the trunk. The trees almost look as though they are wearing tutus—in a strong wind they would surely dance.
A little further down the road I stop again to photograph a magnificent wooden cow in the entrance to a farm. Harold Simpson pulls up on his quad bike just as I’m trying to frame up the sculpture with the avenue of nikau stretching away down the road.
“A hippy did it for me with a chainsaw,” he says. With an air of regret he tells me that there aren’t as many nikau along the Kohaihai Karamea road as there used to be. Some seem to go rotten where cattle rub up against them, and every year a storm takes one or two. Headless ones left standing in the aftermath of storms feature in several Stanley Palmer paintings. They seem a kind of testament to the nikau’s valour in the face of ceaseless conflict with the north-west wind.
There’s a poster of one of the Stanley Palmers in the window display of the information centre in Karamea, along with a photocopy of an early 20th-century photograph of a group of settlers enjoying a picnic. Men, women and children, all in Sunday best, lounge in the shade of an impressive stand of nikau. Again, something about the image induces a feeling of déjà vu. I was standing beneath the same trees myself less than an hour ago. They’re on George Harris’s old section.
I have the same sense of recognition a couple of days later in a secondhand shop in Murchison. I’m thumbing through a selection of ’60s postcards when I come across one of a group of nikau on the Coast at a bend in the road near the Fox River. I photographed the same group on the way through there. Nothing extraordinary in that, you may say, but I’ve got to know the West Coast road pretty well now, and I think I could draw a map showing where all the best nikau are from a car-window perspective. I don’t think there are more than about a dozen spots.
It would be hard to imagine the Coast without nikau, and yet you can drive for miles without seeing any. It’s not that they’re in any danger of extinction—there are plenty of them in the protected forests—but it seems to me that it’s paddock nikau, flashing past at 100 km/h, that contribute most to our image of the Coast. With their leaves all sun-scorched and frost-bitten, they seem to be keeping the faith 150 years or so after the surrounding forests crashed and burned, providing a precious link with the country’s ecological past.
No one seems to know how long nikau live, but the old ones can’t be expected to carry the torch forever. It’s good to see nikau appearing along Queen Street and around Civic Square, even if some of them are made of nickel and steel, but it would be even better if a few more live ones were going into the ground out in the sticks. As for those old friends along the Greymouth-to-Karamea highway, let’s hope we can persuade them to stick around for another couple of hundred years at least.