Field Studies

October 8, 2022

Although the Thursday morning just past is certainly not the first time I have spent far too long staring at the ground in a field (and will not be the last), the place in which I stood is particularly interesting – if only for the place that it had occupied in my brain for over a decade.

I am indebted to the artist, Henry Turner, for showing me around several sites that are simultaneously unremarkable and amazing for the somewhat compromised lens that they offer into the past.

I should qualify this comment by stating that current and former landowners are some of the few who have allowed these extremely rare plant communities to retain some kind of tenure upon this land, through the retention of both landform and an approximation of the natural ecological regime that defines this place.

The cause for my visit was far less esoteric than rummaging around on ancestral river terraces of the Waimakariri River, as I set my trip down on the basis of a visit by a world-renowned expert on Mediterranean bulbs, Oron Peri. However, I would have flown down just to see some of the few remaining specimens of a Canterbury Plains endemic (Olearia adenocarpa) in what I will euphemistically refer to as the ‘wild’.

To the credit of people who have presided over the few places where this rare plant has endured, a very small number of this evolutionarily-fascinating plant remain within exclosures in dry paddocks (as shown above) that still betray their origins as river terraces formed by the peripatetic rhythms of braided rivers in Canterbury’s lowlands.

On the subject of all things peripatetic, I’m not sure that the domestic lawn would ever have this adjective applied to it.

Yet to my utter astonishment, a local resident who was kind enough to allow us access (and who shows genuine stewardship towards this place) pointed me and Henry towards another survivor of a mostly vanished flora sitting adjacent to the garden shed, with a clothesline setting the scene for this peculiar New Zealand allegory in the foreground (pictured above, with O. adenocarpa protected by a rectangular cage).

Another surprise associated with this dryland landscape was the sheer scale of some remnant dwarf kowhai, including the massive Sophora prostrata by the roadside shown above, right (car included for scale). Prior to this week, the largest specimens of S. prostrata that I had seen hung off outcrops in Marlborough (in the foothills leading from the coast to the Seaward Kaikouras).

These shrubs (perhaps better described as copses) are at least double the size of those Marlborough specimens, which made my mind drift towards their age. Although personal accounts of the history of a given area include everything that can be seen above ground, lignotubers (and similar growth structures) obscure the true age of plants.

Much like Olearia adenocarpa (which is effectively a stunted Olearia odorata with a lignotuber in an evolutionary sense), who knows how long these Sophora prostrata have endured grazing or similar pressures before finding that conditions tilted in their favour.