Redwoods in New Zealand

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

Forests are like magic to me. Standing with my toes in the dirt, inhaling the fresh, damp air and watching as the sun casts dappled shadows across the forest floor is something I could do for hours. I quite often used to think that when I grew up, I would end up living off the land in a quaint little cottage in the forest, like a dryad, a tree nymph or nature spirit from all the Greek myths I was reading.

Of course, when I found out about the Whakarewarewa Forest, it was a place I desperately needed to go. Californian Redwood, radiata pines, native New Zealand ferns, Douglas fir, eucalyptus, and larch trees awaited me when I arrived. Labelled ‘The Redwoods’ by locals, it is also called the Redwood Memorial Grove in dedication to the forest service men who lost their lives during World War 2. As if knowing that, the forest feels somewhat reverent - but that could be my romanticism talking.

Unfortunately, the redwood forest’s beginnings were not that romantic. It was named after the Māori settlement, Te Whakarewarewa Tanga o te Ope Taua a Wahiao (the place

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

Forests are like magic to me. Standing with my toes in the dirt, inhaling the fresh, damp air and watching as the sun casts dappled shadows across the forest floor is something I could do for hours. I quite often used to think that when I grew up, I would end up living off the land in a quaint little cottage in the forest, like a dryad, a tree nymph or nature spirit from all the Greek myths I was reading.

Of course, when I found out about the Whakarewarewa Forest, it was a place I desperately needed to go. Californian Redwood, radiata pines, native New Zealand ferns, Douglas fir, eucalyptus, and larch trees awaited me when I arrived. Labelled ‘The Redwoods’ by locals, it is also called the Redwood Memorial Grove in dedication to the forest service men who lost their lives during World War 2. As if knowing that, the forest feels somewhat reverent – but that could be my romanticism talking.

Unfortunately, the redwood forest’s beginnings were not that romantic. It was named after the Māori settlement, Te Whakarewarewa Tanga o te Ope Taua a Wahiao (the place where the war party of Te Arawa chief Waihiao performed) on the hills of Mt Tarawera. The Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886 decimated the area including the original Whakarewarewa Forest.

When more pioneers left England and started to set up towns in New Zealand, many native forests were cleared and their timber used for settlements and fencing for sheep and cattle farms. Because of the rate at which these new settlers were tearing down the forests and knowing that native New Zealand species can take 200-300 years to mature, the government tried to get people to plant more trees. By 1913, the numbers of many native New Zealand trees were rapidly declining, so in 1918, native timber exports were restricted. In 1925, though the government continued to encourage people to grow new imported plant varieties to take the stress off natives, these tactics did not stop some of our native tree species becoming extinct.

Californian Redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirens, are the tallest living trees on earth, some reaching over 115 metres tall and 9 metres wide. The botanical name was created and given to the species to honour Cherokee Chief Seqoyah, who created an alphabet specifically for his tribe’s language to be written. In the USA, some Californian Redwoods are over 2,000 years old – the oldest is 2,200! In comparison, the oldest redwood tree in New Zealand was planted in 1901 and is around 100 years old – and still alive! It stands at 72 metres tall and is 2 metres wide. Californian Redwoods were deemed ‘the everlasting redwood’ at the turn of the century, simply because they are evergreen and can live for thousands of years – sempervirens literally means always flourishing or vigorous, or evergreen. On display in the Whakarewarewa Forest is a slab of the oldest redwood tree in the world that predates even the birth of Christ. There were so many growth rings it was impossible for me to count them all. There was also a piece of a younger tree that was planted with the 1901 original plantation, but even with that one I could not quite count all the rings to tell how old the tree was when it was cut, because they were so close together.

The Californian Redwood is a softwood species. Because the redwood grows faster here in New Zealand, it is a softer wood than the hard redwood timber that grows in California. Despite the success of the Whakarewarewa Forest, these beautiful auburn giants did not have an easy time getting started. The trees grow in very specific conditions and can be super hard to settle when planted in new soil. Needless to say, the tree was named redwood because the wood is indeed, red. Or rather, a beautiful light-auburn colour that darkens to a nutty-brown when exposed to air. Various plantations were grown here, because the timber had a good reputation for producing beautiful timber and so, became desirable for building.

You would not think it now, but there used to be a time when the Whakarewarewa Forest did not exist; it was originally a nursery! The first forestry pioneers in New Zealand used the area to conduct forestry experiments – the kind where you plant it and hope for the best. 70 different tree species were planted over 5,000 hectares but not too many lasted. Of the 4,000 hectares that were planted between 1890 and 1945, less than one percent of the redwood trees were successful. Because our climate is similar to certain places in the northern hemisphere, trees from the west coast of North America that would presumably grow well here were specifically sought-after. It was from this area that two trees were found and later crossbred into the radiata pine that would go on to be the most important tree in our forestry industry.

Californian Redwoods and giant sequoias were planted all along New Zealand in the 1800s with varying success. Decent soil, regular rainfall and a temperate climate are all needed for these giants to successfully grow. They are extremely picky. Heavy frosts, salty spray, or strong winds can all stunt a redwood’s growth, though occasional gales can be tolerated. Redwoods grow well in California, because there is a belt of summer fog along the coast of California all the way to Oregon that decreases water loss from evaporation and transpiration, the process of water evaporating from plants. The summer fog belt also helps create condensation that drips onto the ground and keeps the soil moist during dry summers. Coastal redwood bark can grow up to 300mm thick. This thick bark combined with high-rising foliage provides good protection from fires and insect damage, contributing to the tree’s longevity.

Our annual rainfall makes for perfect redwood growing conditions and damp soil is one of the reasons why redwoods grow so well here, though New Zealand’s wide range of soils means that the redwood can only thrive in certain places. Bill Libby was a professor of Forestry at the University of California who devoted most of his time to convincing people that New Zealand was probably the best place to grow redwoods. He said that the conditions needed for the redwoods to flourish outside of California were better here than anywhere else on earth.

Turns out he was right after all. The redwood forest in Rotorua spans 55,000 hectares and is a magnificent destination for mountain bikers, walkers, hikers, and horse riders, with tracks for all. It is set not too far from the Rotorua geysers, and a tramp takes you up above the treetops and overlooks the entirety of Rotorua. It is really quite beautiful, although, red-faced and chest heaving, I may not have fully enjoyed it until my breathing got a little more even. In all seriousness, this beautiful, sprawling landmass of hundred-year-old giants is truly something to behold. Not only do you feel young, but you feel incredibly small looking up at the gorgeous green foliage. If you ever find yourself in Rotorua, ‘The Redwoods’ are definitely not to be missed.

 

Sources: 1. Exotic species of secondary interest: Californian redwood, New Zealand timbers: The complete guide to exotic and Indigenous woods 2. The Redwoods, Whakarewarewa Forest, About the forest, redwoods.co.nz

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