It’s not the prettiest ngaio in the south, but the tree opposite the University of Otago Commerce Building on Clyde Street is an interesting old identity that has seen generations of University students and staff come and go. If only trees could talk.
This tree has been pruned so mercilessly to avoid touching buses, it has almost been sliced in two, and it needs ‘walking sticks’ to prop up one of its branches. It looks a bit like something out of one of those cross-section books for children. So why is it my favourite local ngaio?
In the late 1970s, I was flatting with students at 136 Albany Street, and one of them persuaded me to read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’. Tolkien’s descriptions of real and fictitious trees fascinated me, and I spent the next few weeks identifying the common European trees growing in Dunedin.
Strolling around the corner and along Clyde Street one day, I came across a strange evergreen tree with sticky, blackish growing tips and pinkish berries. The books of British trees couldn’t help me, so, guessing that the strange tree might be a local native, I bought a little Mobil New Zealand Nature Series book of New Zealand Native Trees (No. 1) by Nancy Adams. Lo and behold, there on the second-last entry was a painting and a description of this mysterious tree – ‘Ngaio’ (or ‘Kaio’ in the southern dialect used by many Kai Tahu people, as in Papakaio north of Oamaru) Myoporum laetum. So began my lifelong interest in native trees.
The link with literature doesn’t end there though. Thanks to Dame Ngaio Marsh and her books, ngaio is one of the most well-known Maori names outside New Zealand.
Then there’s children’s fiction. You half expect elves, fairies or pixies to come out of the gnarly, twisted trunks of old ngaio trees at night. I wonder how many New Zealand authors have explored the potential of this feature in their stories.
Broad green domes of ngaio are fairly common along the coast near Dunedin and Brighton. Surprisingly though, they peter out completely before you get to the Catlins. Somewhere between Taieri Mouth and the Catlins is the southernmost naturally-growing ngaio in the world.
But wait! – there’s an Aussie usurper lurking in the margins of the ngaio story. For some obscure reason, lots of Boobialla or Tasmanian ngaio shrubs (Myoporum insulare) have been planted along our coastline where the native ngaio was already coping quite well thank you. This despite the larger flowers and brighter pink berries on the native trees. And in a curious case of Life imitating Art (Sports Art in this case), guess which ngaio has the blackish growing tips – yes, you’re right, the New Zealand one.
To be fair, Australia is Myoporum central, with about 18 species against our 3 or 4 species. Myoporum means ‘closed pores’ – a clue to how these trees and shrubs cope with very dry soils on sandy coasts and in the Australian outback. The laetum in Myoporum laetum means something like ‘happy’ – one of the nicer scientific names for a native tree. Ngaio do look happy along or near the coast, but they hate frosts, so you won’t find many happy ngaio trees far from the sound of the sea.
In and around Dunedin, ngaio has coped with over a century of urban and coastal development better than most other local native trees. It’s a real survivor to be admired and nurtured. The owners of a property on the corner of Young and Churchill Streets in St Kilda certainly seem to like them. They’ve let ngaio trees completely dominate the limited space in their front garden.
As you can see, ngaio are not the most glamorous or statuesque coastal trees – in the conventional sense anyway. In fact, northern pohutukawa seem to cope with the cold, salty winds of the south better than ngaio in the same location. Witness the young native trees lining the shore along Portsmouth Drive. It’s the ngaio and Chatham Island ake ake (Olearia traversiorum) that look battered and contorted by the incessant harbour wind, not the pleasingly plump pohutukawa. But hey! – how many trees do you know with pink berries?