Sunday, November 21, 2010

A season of trees

At the moment I spend a lot of time thinking about flowering trees. On the bus, on lunchtime walks, gazing out my office window. Last summer I went on a native flora and fauna binge, including an effort to get to the bottom of the difference between pohutokawa and rata, but my interest this spring has been less parochial.

It started with the magnolia trees on Roy Street in Newtown. At least, I think they were magnolias, white ones. I had appreciated the full-on nature of the street in bloom last year without thinking too deeply about it. This year I had anticipated the white fortnight or so in late August/early September as a sign that I’d been travelling this way to work for over a year.

Something I hadn’t put much thought into, however, is that these trees had been planted specifically for the purpose of this all-out flowering. I guess most trees in inner city suburbs have been planted with some form of intent, either by homeowners or the council. Often the intent is decorative (the shade or oxygenation they provide being secondary). But flowers — big-ass flowers at that — growing on trees? It seemed like I had been missing something to this point in my life.

I suspect I am not alone in that the first types of flowers that pop in my mind when I hear the word are the sort you’ll find a florist. Those that grow from bulbs or on thorny bushes. The plant that produces the flower is secondary, or perhaps inseparable from the blossom in name and biology, like the daffodil. If asked to push further I’d think of something ground-hugging and decorative like a pansy.

Of course, I always knew on one level that trees produced flowers. Some, like the pohutokawa, are pretty hard not to notice.

Then in late winter/early spring I started to notice all the tree blossoms, especially on a trip from Christchurch to Timaru. I’d always thought of these as cherry blossoms but I knew there couldn’t be that many cherry trees around… Research suggests they were also other fruit bearing trees (apple, pear, plum...), crabapple, dogwood, and so on.

Early spring really belongs to these immigrant trees and they add an interesting flavour to our seasons. New Zealand life would be duller without them. But now that we're in November the natives are beginning to put their hands up. Some juvenile pohutokawa in Wellington have already popped their first red blossoms, while the more mature trees appear covered in dotted whites (the fresh flower pods, ready to blossom).

Pohutokawa tree set to blossom, Island Bay
But the revelation for me this year has been the beauty of the cabbage trees (ti kouka) in bloom. I've always had a deep affection for cabbage trees. We had a particularly straight-trunked, single-headed specimen at my childhood home and the image of a lone tree standing in a Manawatu paddock makes me swallow my vowels.

I'm less taken with cabbage trees as what they call "street trees", bound by concrete (and often metal cages) and placed with a kind of over-the-top cynicism; the stand of mature ti kouka outside parliament (which I can see from my window at work), however, seems to strike the right balance of overt symbolism and natural selection.

Perhaps it is these many-headed hydras that are responsible for my recent revelation that their blossoms are beautiful. Previously I hadn't thought much of them. If pushed, I would have described their efforts at reproduction as scraggly, straw-coloured, uninspiring. But this spring I've come around. A cabbage tree in bloom, particularly a many-headed hydra, is often the perfect balance of flower and foliage. The understated colour scheme, green lanceolate leaves and the white blossoms that soon give way to the tawny brown of the bare panicles (not unlike like the dun of the cricket pitch and the green of the outfield, but I don’t want to get carried away).
A many-headed cabbage tree/ti kouka, Melrose
And in a fabulous piece of timing, I discovered on Guy Fawkes how much those fireworks that make those fizzy showers of yellow-white light — you know the one’s whose images that seem to last longer than the other explosions — looks so much like a cabbage tree’s flowers.

Cabbage tree flowers, Houghton Bay
In my spring observing of flowering trees I've also decided I don't much like the kowhai. In bloom, and from a distance (preferably driving past at high speed), a kowhai can be striking. But the yellow flowers are at their brightest so brief a time and quickly revert to the blighted colouring of an over ripe banana. And in this period of full bloom, there's virtually no leaves to speak of. It's as if the tree has gone all out on the flowers at the expense of everything else. I shouldn't humanise the actions of this poor native tree, but it doesn't speak to me the same as the measured, unimposing approach of the cabbage tree.

Then there's the kowhai's fallen flowers which gum up gutters and make footpaths slippery. Since deciding I didn't like kowhai I've learnt of two people who required dental work after slipping on kowhai-slimed concrete. I wonder if there's a disproportionate amount of kowhai's growing outside dentist's houses?

The days of the kowhai bloom are already gone for another year and the cabbage trees will shake off their flowery ways soon enough. But I feel as if, in taking note of these process of nature around me, I have welcomed another set of companions to my life. Like an extended family, one or other will always step forward at significant times. And while there's nothing cynical or calculating in the least about my recent interest in the seasons and nature, it can only help my writing to know what sort of tree to place in what sort of situation...

Now, off to write that story about the aborist.

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