International incident

June 12, 2023

Botanising can be a dangerous game when you’re hanging off cliffs, traversing damp seeps, or leaping across fractured karst in pursuit of nature’s wonders. However, you haven’t truly felt fear until you’ve skirted semi-rural roads in West Auckland to look at obscure podocarps.

I like to think that we’re getting a little better at this whole urban thing in Auckland now that we’re entertaining such radical notions as public transport networks, but New Zealanders are still far too convinced of the primacy of the automobile.

Indeed, we should celebrate that some weirdos choose to spend their Sunday afternoon staring at forests from roadside margins to revel in Halocarpus kirkii‘s bright green foliage (pictured above) and heteroblastic life cycle.

Thankfully, the impatient passing traffic didn’t mow down either of our walking companions, Joey Santore (from Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t) or Miguel de Salas (a Tasmanian botanist), because that would have presented a real logistical problem for getting to our next destination – in search of the world’s greatest tree, Phyllocladus toatoa.

During travels through the North Island, Joey was particularly keen to see a significant representation of our native podocarps (and other NZ conifers), in part due to their long and fascinating evolutionary history.

Depending on your taxonomic standpoint, our 3 species of Phyllocladus are either podocarps or nearly-podocarps, and New Zealand is home to 3 of the 5 species within the genus. The specimen that we observed on our walk (whose virtues Joey is extolling above) was in just the right position for comparative botany, due to the presence of its near-relative, tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides), intertwined with its branching structure.

It’s invigorating to show our natural environments to botanists and horticulturists from other parts of the world, as they approach them with genuine curiosity. I had a similar experience three years ago when showing colleagues from our Isle of Man project around various parts of New Zealand.

This vicarious joy of seeing others experience our plants and wild places with fresh eyes reminds me of a wonderful passage from Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. “Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.”

This certainly applies to Joey’s work with making botany more accessible to a wider audience; a man devoted to the art of catching the natural world by surprise.