On the brink

November 23, 2014

In forest remnants at the tip of New Zealand’s mainland, a large forest tree lay undiscovered until the 1970s when a distinguished New Zealand botanist, J. K. Bartlett, came across it in bush close to Cape Reinga. A major part of what drew Bartlett’s attention to the tree that would later bear his name was its unusual bark, rather than the white flowers that also set it apart from all of our other tree species of Metrosideros (it was not in flower at the time).

Over the following years, more specimens of this critically-endangered tree were found in a small number of remnants, and in the early 1990s, 34 adult trees were known from the wild. This number has since dwindled to 25 adult trees, a decline in which the major factor is the impact of possums – a pest that is a scourge to all of our tree rata.

Metrosideros bartlettii does not flower regularly in cultivation, and therefore I made a special visit to Fernglen Gardens to get images of the tree that is currently in bloom there. The flowers did not cover the entire canopy, but were abundant in the lower parts of the tree on which they occurred.

The bark on the tree at Fernglen Gardens does not yet have the appearance of mature specimens, on which the flaking, whitish bark bears more resemblance to certain species of Melaleuca than it does to our other tree rata species.

At the time of my visit, the flowers were busy with activity, as large numbers of native bees and hoverflies rubbed shoulders with honeybees and bumblebees for the nectar and pollen that Metrosideros produce in their densely packed flowerheads. The tree was at peak flowering with a mix of inflorescences that were reaching the end of their flowering and buds that were unfolding (as shown below). Part of the function of places like Fernglen is to play a role in the advocacy of species like M. bartlettii; and it is to be hoped that this beautiful tree receives more attention, to assist in arresting its current downward path towards extinction.