Just a sparrow

One of the tasks that school groups are given when they tour Zealandia is to complete a bird checklist.  They carry a clipboard with a page showing 10 bird species that can be found in the sanctuary and, with the help of a guide, check off the birds as they encounter them.  Every time I have accompanied a group into the Valley, the very first bird that makes an appearance is an English sparrow (aka tiu, house sparrow, and Passer domesticus).

It’s not surprising; these cosmopolitans bear the distinction of being one of, if not the most broadly distributed bird species in the world.  Most of that is due to intentional introduction during the late 1800’s, when an era of exploration and colonization fueled the desire to spread both familiar and exotic species far and wide across the globe.  Acclimatisation Societies were formed for the express purpose of bringing animals and plants into newly settled lands – lands that were perceived as empty or lacking in desirable game species and other familiar and supposedly essential wildlife. New Zealand’s Canterbury Acclimatisation Society released 40 English sparrows in 1867, ostensibly to eat pest insects; 20 years later, they had proven so successful at eating grain that they were themselves deemed a pest, and the Society tried to pin the blame on a foolhardy ship captain.  Something similar happened in the US, but this introduction effort required several determined attempts before the sparrows finally acclimatized  — again, just a little too well, ousting native species like bluebirds from nesting cavities and foraging heavily on grain crops.

Zealandia has been successful in restricting all introduced mammals in the sanctuary, and in reintroducing native birds on the brink of extinction, but it has no recourse when it comes to excluding sparrows and other non-native birds like starlings, blackbirds, California quail, mallards, and magpies. As far as I can tell, these birds, which frequent the sanctuary in large numbers, are usually simply ignored.  School children will spot a sparrow and eagerly go to check it off, only to find that it doesn’t appear on the checklist.  “Oh, it’s just a sparrow,” is the guide’s usual response.  “Not important.”  Then their attention is directed to the rare takahe, the inquisitive robin, the warbling tui.  Guides are usually careful when talking to children to identify, but not vilify, any of the other invasive species that have been excluded from the sanctuary. That message usually goes, “Not bad – just not supposed to be here.” Even the introduced California quail receives some respect, as a ground-dwelling bird whose habits resemble those of native (though locally extirpated) weka closely enough that it is considered an analogue species and tolerated in Zealandia.

On one of my weekend hikes around Zealandia, I met a volunteer guide at a bird feeding station.  His name was James, and he was eager to show me the different species that frequent the station: the kaka and bellbird drinking nectar, and the red-capped kakariki eating millet.  We searched the trees around the millet feeder, but no parakeets showed themselves. I noted the abundance of sparrows, and the guide gave an exasperated groan.  “Oh yes, there are more than enough of those.  But you’re an American – you must know how invasive they are!  Do you know, I had a nice British couple here just a few minutes ago, and all they could do was admire the English sparrows!  I told them, But they’re just sparrows!  And they don’t belong here! But they just went on about how lovely they were.  Sparrows – can you imagine?”  Just then a pair of kakariki arrived to capture our attention, and the offending sparrows were quickly forgotten.

kakariki 2

What the British couple may have been expressing, a perspective difficult for people living in sparrow-introduced parts of the world to accept, is that English sparrows have been severely declining in their home territory.  They suffered a 60% reduction in the past two decades and have been placed on the red list for conservation efforts in Great Britain.  Lack of insects for feeding nestlings has been targeted as the primary cause, blamed on the use of pesticides and gardening practices that have eliminated foraging areas. I can well imagine that encountering your disappearing backyard birds in abundance halfway around the world would be a thrill.

That afternoon, a flock of sparrows showed up in my back yard, perched in a line along the wooden fence.  One flew down and began to pull vigorously at a dried dandelion seed head, while the others spread out, some snapping up the prolific passonvine hoppers and others foraging in the grass.  A few juveniles followed adults, begging to be fed. I sat and watched this family whose survival success because of and in spite of humans has rendered them insignificant – or, in terms of biodiversity, a concern – in the places where they were once so eagerly introduced.  They have a story here. At the very least, don’t they deserve a spot on the bird checklist?

sparrows dandelion






Wild things

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a screening at Victoria University of “Project Wild Thing,” a film by British filmmaker David Bond.  Bond, the father of two young children, was dismayed by the lack of time that his children were spending out in nature, compared to his own childhood experience, and decided to document his journey into branding Nature and selling it as an essential commodity.  The film followed themes such as nature deficit and risk aversion, touching on many of the topics that I have encountered in my own research on outdoor play over the years.  Though the film is based in Britain, Bond clarified to this New Zealand audience that studies showed their much-vaunted outdoor ethic faced the same obstacles as those elsewhere in the world (screens, primarily) and was in danger of winding up in the same place as Britain in five years. His current film tour is intended to spread the word about children’s time in nature and to create a worldwide network to support outdoor play initiatives.

playground 3

One of the principals who recently showed me around her school pointed out some small “wild” patches of  native bush where the children could play and build forts.  “I worry about the plants getting trampled,” she said, “but they like these spots more than the open areas.”  She gestured toward an empty expanse of asphalt.  Walking around to the other side of the school, kids just coming out for recess swarmed over the climbing structure tucked under some fruit trees, and into the trees themselves.  Most of the children wore sun hats, and several were barefoot.  Adults monitored them from a distance. This recess, the principal told me, followed morning tea (snack time) and lasted about 20 minutes, and there would be another after lunch. She added that the school placed a high priority on outdoor time. And, since many of these children lived in low-income housing in the city and didn’t get outside much, parents expected the school to provide them with outdoor experiences, both on and off campus.

playground 2

The “Project Wild Thing” movie raised the question of whether children’s lack of time in nature was more an issue of supply or demand.  Do children just prefer to spend time indoors in front of screens, or does society not provide them with adequate spaces and opportunities to be outside?  Can schools be a haven for such experience in a country where 86% of its population has become urbanized?

A more pressing question, recent news from New Zealand makes clear, is whether a newly instigated threat of liability may remove even this benefit.  In spite of government assurances that nothing in schools should change dramatically, a new health and safety bill has placed responsibility for children’s well-being directly on the shoulders of school principals.  For the one who showed me her playground, fears of trampled plants are now likely the least of her worries.








Cultivating an attitude

I’ve been fortunate during this project to see sustainability and biodiversity education approached from numerous angles: conserving wild natives in Zealandia, caring for and sustaining diverse species at the Wellington Zoo, observing ecosystem processes at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, and participating in environmental lessons in schools.

One of these schools is a short walk away in my neighborhood.  On Wednesdays, Year 5-6 students spend a 90-minute block learning about different environmental topics, primarily through gardening.  The class splits into several working groups that rotate weekly between data collection and analysis (math applications), blogging (reporting on environmental news of the week for the school newsletter), and working in the garden. Three teachers supervise the different groups and coordinate efforts so that students remain aware of what other groups have accomplished, and are able to plan their next activity.

Wellington’s temperate climate allows for gardening year-round, so the students have been busy planting several different brassicas, silverbeet (chard), broadbeans, and parsnips, as well as tending the tomatoes and herbs begun earlier in the year. The lessons that I have observed have offered a wealth of information and hands-on experience with seed collection, planting, germination, cultivation, and harvest.  For each stage of plant development, there are accompanying processes that are directly illustrated and actively absorbed.

Two weeks ago, the gardening group worked on cultivation of their garden beds: fertilizing, weeding, and removing pests.  Before they began, their teacher led them in a discussion of how people usually approach these tasks. One student offered that his grandfather sprayed cabbage plants to get rid of the caterpillars.  Others chimed in to say that their families bought fertilizer and weed killer.  “So how could we accomplish the same goals without buying those chemicals?” After listening to their ideas, she presented the objectives for the morning:

1) Carefully pull out anything that wasn’t a Brassica from the bed.  How could you tell?  Practice identifying by leaf shape and plant structure.


2) Fertilizing.  The teacher had brought several buckets of aged kelp gathered from nearby beaches and showed the students how to pack this around the base of each plant.

3) Remove (and squish) caterpillars of the small cabbage white butterfly from underneath each leaf.

caterpillar on comfrey

While this was going on, members of the data collection team circulated with clipboards, recording numbers of caterpillars found and checking rain gauges. The blogging team conducted on-site interviews to record reactions to things like the smell of the rotting seaweed (“Disgusting”)and the condition of the soil (“Dry”).

rain gauge2

This week, the focus was on compost, with the analogy of making a cake using dry and wet ingredients, things that would make it heat up, and things that would support “activity” or decomposers.  The highlight of this day, after various forms of compost had been gathered on school grounds, was an impromptu walking field trip down the hill and into the Aro Valley center. Here, the group visited two cafes and requested their coffee grounds from the day, which they would add to their school compost.  These were willingly donated, and on the way back to school the group picked up a pile of cardboard waiting on the curb for recycling – this would be shredded and also added to the compost.

Of the many benefits of having a school garden, the food that it produces may actually be far less significant than its ability to actively draw children into understanding and appreciating essential processes and cycles.  One of the boys arrived to work on compost today with the comment, “Isn’t compost just rotten stuff?”  By the end of the class, he was eagerly announcing all the things that he was planning to bring in to add to the school piles, including his rabbit’s straw bedding that his family had been discarding in the rubbish. In fact, he said, he would clean that cage as soon as he got home.




Agent Insect

As I was out walking on this first day of true New Zealand autumn, the early morning air carried the distinct aroma of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), a sensation that I usually associate with spring.  My first response was to inhale deeply and savor the scent, feeling a strong urge to taste that drop of nectar at the base of the flower. IMG_2820

But these flowers had no nectar, and the next reaction kicked in: despair at the damage the vines were causing the trees they covered. This is considered a highly problematic introduced species here, as it is in the United States. How was NZ, already beset by innumerable invasive species, going to manage this rampant pest?

When it comes to waging war on pest species in New Zealand, the arsenal deployed by the government and its agencies is huge – and as diverse as the species it intends to contain.  It has to be, as each of the species requires its own particular management approach. Poison and traps are one of the most obvious weapons against small introduced mammals, appearing in every green space I’ve visited, with obvious warning signs for curious humans.  The school programs provided by environmental organizations often directly promote and involve students in pest management strategies at school and home alike.

Other pest control measures employ living agents imported from the home range of the invasive species. This is a tricky business, as one species brought in to control another can sometimes itself become a problem.  Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicenwere imported to NZ from Australia in the 1860’s to control insects in the newly created livestock pastures, protected by law through the 1950’s, and are now considered a pest species due to their aggressive impact on other birds’ nesting and feeding habits.


Most living biological control agents, however, are tiny and secretive, such as the parasitic wasps that specialize on a particular host in its native range.  They are tested in captivity in NZ to be sure that they won’t accidentally become a problem for desirable insects, then released to find their targeted host, like programmed drones with the capacity to reproduce.  wasp2Sometimes this is effective; sometimes not.  Some of NZ’s greatest introduced invertebrate problems are “social wasps” like the two introduced Vespula species and paper wasps.  Parasitoid wasps were brought in to manage these, but have not yet established themselves broadly enough to have a measurable effect.  Current research is finding living pathogens such as fungi more capable of controlling social wasp populations.

Pest plants are also often controlled with insect agents rather than chemicals. A recent article in the local news hailed the release of three species of beetle, each specifically targeting a different part of the Tradescantia plant known commonly as Wandering Willie. wandering willie The larvae of the beetles will devour either leaves, stems, or leaf tips, and biologists hope that this will help to control this fast-growing plant that has the ability to grow from any node that touches the ground, and forms mats on the ground so thick that seeds from other plants cannot germinate.

Weevils, moths, and hover flies are some of the other insect agents that have been brought to NZ with the hope of controlling out-of-control species.  As I was looking over the list of targeted species for NZ and their biological controls, I was surprised to see that Japanese honeysuckle was listed as a host species for the Honshu white admiral butterfly (Limenitis glorifica).  The butterfly has supposedly been released in several locations here, and researchers are still waiting for it to become well established to gauge its effectiveness. In the US, as far as I can tell, no effective biological controls have yet emerged for Japanese honeysuckle.

The line between what humans consider a pest and what they preferentially cultivate remains blurry, and a problem.  I may love the scent of Japanese honeysuckle on the first morning of autumn in New Zealand, but the plant out-competes natives.  Likewise, I am thrilled to see butterflies visiting a lovely flowering bush, but when that bush is Buddleia, not so much. It, too, is listed as a pest species, with an imported weevil, ​Cleopus japonicus, as its control agent.

monarch buddleia

The beloved monarch butterfly is an import from North America, and while the adult will happily nectar on butterfly bush, its caterpillar feeds only on milkweed.  In New Zealand, this host, the swan plant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus), comes from east Africa.  So far, this intercontinental partnership seems harmonious and welcome in the NZ landscape that has adopted them.





Puna mātauranga: Pool of knowledge

A consistent response to my inquiries about teaching sustainability in New Zealand is, “Do you know about EnviroSchools?” The Enviroschools program is a nationwide sustainability education effort launched in 2001, funded by the NZ Ministry for the Environment’s Sustainable Management Fund.  Participation by schools has grown steadily, now includes one third of all NZ schools, and represents all income brackets.  In many ways the EnviroSchools program resembles the various Green Schools networks that exist in the US, especially in efforts to integrate widespread community awareness and involvement with the work of the schools.

I will be delving deeper into the EnviroSchools model in future posts. Today I want to highlight its focus on puna mātauranga, or the collective pool of environmental knowledge that I was invited to witness and join with Otari School yesterday. Each EnviroSchool has a student team that works with lead teachers to investigate and help promote sustainable activities at the school.  Several of these teams were invited by a regional EnviroSchools facilitator to participate in a day of activities at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, a native plant sanctuary. The team from neighboring Otari School had students ranging from 10-13 years old, and they were divided and mixed in with younger children, some of whom had barely turned 5.  Throughout the day, children were encouraged to collaborate in these mixed-age groups, with older children assisting the younger ones with recording data, using tools, and getting up steep trails.



Seed study started off the morning, with the facilitator leading the group through plant collections featuring different seed dispersal methods.


sticky seeds 2
Piripiri (Acaena microphylla)
wind seeds 3
Totorowhiti, Grass tree
prickly carrot 1
Speargrass, kurikuri

We ended up beneath a kowhai tree (Sophora sp.), described as New Zealand’s unofficial national flower for its beauty and prevalence in the landscape. The kowhai had dropped a profusion of seeds from its pods, so the kids hunted and collected these, then sanded off a bit of the hard seed coat and planted them in soil to take back to school. Along the way, the facilitator demonstrated some other plants’ characteristics and traditional uses.


coffee leaf sound
Making noises with a karamu (Coprosma robusta) leaf

Our next stop was the fernery, where the facilitator described some unique traits of non-flowering plants, introduced a few of the most prevalent fern species, and asked the students to do a series of sketches that would be used as the basis for a carved wooden entry arch to the fernery.

While most of the older trees around Wellington were logged in the early 1900’s, Otari-Wilton’s Bush contains two ancient rimu trees (Dacrydium cupressinum) estimated at 800+ years.  We walked up to see these, pausing along the way to catch our breath and hear Māori tales of traditional healing plants. The rimu trees stretched so far above the canopy that it was impossible to see their tops, but we could see the massive lower branches loaded with epiphyte gardens.

Our final activity was a study of the Te Mahanga stream’s health.  Water from this stream has passed through a number of dams and farmed areas prior to reaching Otari-Wilton’s Bush.  Students worked in teams to visit stations to assess water quality: macroinvertebrate diversity, water temperature and clarity, and human impacts.

eel 1
Eel (Anguilla sp.)

At the end of this very full day, we all gathered for farewells and final instructions. “Now that you have this knowledge,” the leaders reminded us, “you must take action to share it with others.” We discussed scenarios for how to accomplish this (the 5-year olds insisting that they would be in charge of teaching everyone about hellgrammites), and they headed back to school, with trees to grow and knowledge to share.

What struck me most about this day was the very intentional ripple effect that was designed into it.  An EnviroSchools facilitator sets this in motion by coordinating a day of active learning between a community resource partner and a set of schools.  The students, teachers, and parents who attend the event continue the outward current into schools and local communities. I believe there is more than a passing chance that, having had this opportunity for environmental learning in a public place like Otari-Wilton’s Bush, those who were directly taught will bring others back into the Bush to share their knowledge – a model of learning that is in itself sustainable.


Locally sourced fun

This post is a bit of a departure from my normal focus, but it is a celebration of diversity and community sustainability.  When I was first looking for a place to live, I researched the Aro Valley neighborhood and found it described as old, eclectic, artsy, and radical – all appealing.  Many of these traits have proven accurate, with some of the other, less positive (dark, damp, sketchy), yet to be experienced.  It is a neighborhood of narrow, excruciatingly steep streets and hidden stairways, of friendly shop-owners and award-winning cafes and a fine brewery housed in an old garage.  There are lots of university students, families, mountain bikers, and coffee-drinkers. The houses range from brightly-colored Edwardian villas (cottages, actually) to chalets and modern apartments, stacked so tightly against each other that you can see down into the neighbors’ skylights from above. There is a community center, a preschool, and a park where the city’s best-fed pigeons reside.

This was the setting of the Aro Valley Fair today, just down the hill from my place.  Actually, opening ceremonies were held last night with the official “Passing of the Torch” relay down Aro Street.  The Aro Community leaders are lobbying to host the Summer Olympics in 2078, and this event was intended to prove the community’s merits to the IOC. Today’s opening ceremony was a performance by the kapa haka (line dance) group from the local Te Aro School.  This is one of the schools that I have been visiting, which teaches both te reo Māori and Mandarin Chinese, and has students of 39 different nationalities.

While vendors sold local food and crafts, and the Green Party (heavily favored in Aro Valley) lobbied potential voters, local musicians performed and children collected donations from the audience for the preschool. The different Arolympics street teams gathered to compete in classic sack races, a limbo competition, and water balloon tossing.

It could have been a family-friendly neighborhood street festival anywhere in the world — until the final competition.  This was a relay that could only have happened in Aro Valley.  Each competing street’s team had to complete five challenges that tested their familiarity with Aro Valley: 1) Run to the St. Vincent DePaul’s store drop-off box and dress up in whatever they found there.  2) Run back and forth emptying a replica of a dehumidifier with a sponge into a bucket (Aro Valley is known for its dampness, especially if your house does not get direct sun; thankfully, mine does).

relay 2

3) Compete in the Aro Fish Supply trivia contest, answering questions about the local fish & chips shop (I was impressed by how many people had the phone number memorized, as well as the least and most expensive menu items).

fish chips

4) Run over to the Garage Project, the brewery next door, and sample each of the 8 beers on tap (judges threatened urine testing to ensure all were swallowed), then 5) run back and return a vintage VHS tape to the Aro Video Store.

Norway Street, Epuni Street, and Alameda Terrace acquitted themselves most impressively and came away with medals.

relay 3

I’m sorry that I won’t be here for the 2078 Olympics, as Aro Valley surely has proven that it is a hosting contender.  The Aro Valley Fair earned a gold medal today in my opinion for excellent effort in embracing and sustaining a diverse, progressive community.




cat bench sign

Kiwis love their cats – the human Kiwis do, that is. Kiwi birds, not so much.  Nearly half of all New Zealanders own cats; most of them have two. Cats rule the neighborhood streets and sidewalks of Wellington.  I’ve met probably a dozen cats within the Aro Valley area where I live.  These are the regulars who hang out on or under cars, perch on posts, prowl the shrubby banks, and follow us home looking for fish and chips.

classic car cat2

I only know the real name of one – Darwin – because he once wore a collar bearing that inscription, but being on ear-scratching or belly-rubbing terms with all of them, they now go by Daisy, Spot, Moo, etc.  They especially seem to love hanging out on the steep, secluded steps that wind throughout Wellington, giving them an excellent vantage point and me the opportunity to stop for a brief hello while I catch my breath.  Free-range cats have become my surrogate pets.

The theme of pets arose in the school program that I observed at the zoo last week: “Caring for ourselves and animals.”  A group of children entered the “Living Room,” the education center of the zoo, and the leader, Thom, immediately asked them which pets they had at home.  “Dogs?” Yes. “Cats?” Definitely.  “How do you care for your pets?” he asked. Feed them, take them for walks, play with them.  “Do you walk your dog on a leash?”  Some yes, some no.  “Do you bring your cat in at night?”  Puzzled expressions.  Thom gave a quick explanation of why the use of a leash for dogs and bringing cats in at night was caring behavior – not just for the pet, but for the animals that the pets might like to hunt. From here, he moved on to the habitats in the Living Room, and asked the kids to move around, explore the habitats, and see what evidence they could find in them for caring.  They were eager to see the various lizards and frogs, so Thom brought out the blue-tongue skink for the kids to touch, reminding them to use their “zoo finger”to stroke it very gently.

They admired the blue tongue that kept flicking out to taste their smell. When they gathered in a circle again, a child asked why there was no food in the habitats, prompting Thom to show that it was there in the form of fruit flies or vegetables hidden under a log that a reptile could excavate. “How do we keep them safe?” he asked. “By giving them walls so nothing can get them?” answered a child, uncertain. “By not letting them outside!” called another. This led to a discussion of the importance of keeping pets, including the captive animals at the zoo, safely in their habitats so they wouldn’t become problems for wild species.

Previously, I had asked Lynn, one of the education directors, how the zoo articulates its message of caring for other animals to young children.  How does it deliver an emphasis on conserving native species in the midst of so many exotic and introduced ones?  She acknowledged that this was a difficult task, but that beginning with caring for pets seemed to catch their attention and help them make a personal connection.  “And domestic cats?” I asked, knowing that these were identified here as one of the primary predators on native birds and reptiles, as they are worldwide.  The extinction of six endemic NZ bird species has been blamed on cats, with an entire species of wren on an island supposedly wiped out by a single cat belonging to a lighthouse keeper. “Bring them in at night” is an unwritten rule that the zoo promotes, as many vulnerable NZ animals are nocturnal.

Most people here would not countenance a full ban on outdoor cats, but Gareth Morgan, a well-known NZ economist and philanthropist, outraged many Kiwis by publishing a controversial statement: to protect native wildlife, NZ should be entirely cat-free, proposing harsh measures to make it that way – including euthanasia or not replacing one’s cat when it dies.  Most reputable scientific studies agree that feral cats remain a major threat and are most dangerous in conjunction with other unmanaged introduced pest species such as rats, possums, stoats, and hedgehogs (whose populations do not appear to be affected by feline predators). Measures such as poisons and traps have helped to control these, but cats on the loose remain a difficult issue worldwide. Australia’s small mammals are particularly susceptible to cat predation, and environment ministers there have issued a declaration of feral cats as pests. In addition, they acknowledged that work on threatened species recovery must consider best practices for keeping domestic cats.

Darwin showed up the other day wearing what looked like a clown collar. He did not seem particularly pleased with his new apparel, which I recognized as a “bird-safe” collar, designed to help birds see the cat before the cat saw them (bells are deemed only 50% effective, as birds respond to brightly colored visual cues more quickly than sounds).


Darwin crossed the quiet street and strolled over to his usual spot on the sidewalk, where he sat staring at the weedy bank. He appears well cared for, receiving adequate food and exercise, not to mention my daily attention. Will he manage to catch an English sparrow, or a Norway rat?  Or maybe one of the tiny fantails that can’t seem to resist flying straight at an intruder?  This I will probably never know, but as a former cat owner (who has chosen not to replace him), my fondness for the Wellington street cats is tinged with the certainty that when cats roam, neither they nor other small creatures are ever truly safe.



Of ferns, flags, foliage, and fall

On March 1, I awoke to sun streaming in the window, a rousing chorus of cicadas, kaka shrieking as they flew between their favorite roosts, and a friendly post from Facebook.

fb autumn

I was momentarily bewildered, and instinctively looked out the window for verification.  Where were the golden beech leaves, the bright red maples and black gums, the oaks’ deep magentas?  Or even the brown drifts accumulating under any of these trees?  Oh… right – in New Zealand, autumn is not fall.  Leaves are not deciduous here.  Everything is still green.

But wait – it’s only March 1, not the March 20 equinox, so it should still be summer, right?Apparently not.  According to several sources, March 1 is regarded as the official change of seasons here.  This is a meteorological, not an astronomical designation, however.  I can accept that there are cultural differences in acknowledging seasonal transitions, but I am still perplexed by Facebook’s use of northern hemisphere icons in its autumnal greeting to me, here in New Zealand. Grapes – OK, there is a vibrant wine industry, and yes, we are entering harvest time. But oak leaves? Pumpkins?

Typically, when talking about seasons with my students, I ask them what signs indicate a particular season, or the change to a different one, and these are usually pretty straightforward: falling leaves, snow, new buds, hot sun. To answer this question for myself, I went looking for physical changes that would tell me that it is autumn in New Zealand.  It is very hard for someone who has spent their entire life in a latitude where seasons display their differences through color and temperature to know what physical evidence to look for. I decided that the Botanic Gardens, which host plants from all over the world, might provide this.  However, after walking around searching in vain for anything that looked different than it did a month ago, I was stymied.


Flowers still bloomed and attracted butterflies and bees, the leaves were still the same shade of green and clearly had no intention of falling, and there were no squirrels frantically scampering about collecting acorns and walnuts.  I located an oak tree (Common, or English Oak, Quercus robur) with plenty of large, green acorns in the midst of its vibrant green foliage, and stood studying it for awhile, wondering how this transplant from another hemisphere adjusts to the different seasonal regimen here.  As if in answer, a brown leaf sailed down from the tree and landed at my feet.  Just one.

english oak

Realizing that I needed to abandon my notions of what autumn should look like, I turned my focus instead to a set of truly iconic New Zealand plants: ferns.  40% of New Zealand’s ferns are endemic, occurring nowhere else, making them perfect candidates for the “Plants from another Planet” designation. Ferns exist worldwide, primarily in tropical habitats, but in temperate New Zealand, they have great stature – quite literally. The mamuka, or black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris), can reach a height of ten meters, while climbing ferns such as hound’s tongue or kowaowao (Microsorum pustulatum) have adaptations that allow them to exploit the height of many tall trees.

black tree fernhounds tongue

Wellington’s Botanic Gardens display dozens of New Zealand fern species.  There is a group known colloquially as spleenworts, from the resemblance of the spleen to spore-bearing structures (sori) on the backs of the fronds. One of these, the mother spleenwort or pikopiko (Asplenium bulbiferum), actually has small bulbs that develop, drop off, and essentially produce clones of the “mother.” The fronds are edible, as are many of the native ferns, and according to the “doctrine of signatures” philosophy of herbal medicines, would also be beneficial for spleen maladies.

hen chicken

The para, or king fern (Ptisana salicina) is another fern whose edible fronds and potato-like root structure have been heavily exploited by human settlers, browsed and uprooted by animals such as pigs, sheep, and cattle, not to mention rare-plant collectors.  It is quite threatened now, and protected.

king fern

Another group of ferns, known as hard ferns and including the palm-leaf fern (Blechnum novae-zelandiae), have the Maori name kiokio.  Like many plant leaves, kiokio fronds first emerge with a pinkish-red color, displaying anthocyanin pigments.  As they mature, they develop the green chlorophyll pigment that will eventually completely mask the red.


Finally, I came across a fern that actually may represent a new season, politically speaking. It is a fern whose popularity has sparked considerable controversy here recently, and whose visibility may soon be even more pronounced: the ponga, or silver fern (Cyathea dealbata).


Most people recognize ponga as the logo of the wildly popular NZ rugby team, the All Blacks, though it actually represented New Zealand long before this as a Boer War battle emblem.  Ponga is one of the most common tree ferns, whose fronds have a silver-white underside. The controversy stems from a recent referendum on changing the New Zealand flag from a design bearing the Union Jack to one that is of more uniquely New Zealand origin.  While many options were considered, the referendum narrowed the choice to either keeping the current flag, or an alternate one featuring the silver fern and the Southern Cross constellation.


Voting began this week and ends March 24, with the official result to be announced on March 30. Unofficial surveys conducted in common polling places like the Garage Project suggest that Kiwis are less concerned about choosing their own flag design than on spending $26 million to do so.