Palliser Bay

May 26, 2015

As I have learned more about the centuries-old cultivation sites at Palliser Bay (at the southern tip of the North Island), it has always surprised me that early Māori were able to make lives on these exposed, wind-battered shores. Of course, people’s relatively short lives at that time were not particularly glamorous affairs by our contemporary standards of comfort (increasingly so over the years as the food supply of the local fauna became less bountiful), but the tenacity involved in pitching up at all next to Cook Strait is noteworthy when one considers that Palliser Bay is still a challenging environment (even with all the accoutrements of modern technology).

The fascinating marks of these early cultivation sites endure in many parts of Palliser Bay, as intriguing pieces of geometry amidst the agrarian landscape – notably the raised, straight lines of garden walls that demarcated boundaries here. In places, the remnants of stone walls are indicated by the hummocks of native shrubs that establish within the niche created by these human constructions (as shown above, where a line dominated by Melicytus crassifolius announces the presence of an ancient wall beneath).

Many of the native plants that have adapted to life in this area are particularly at home upon the cliffs and rocky ground that stud the landscape. An endemic tussock of the lower North Island, called Chionochloa beddiei (shown above), is one of these inhabitants – perching within the cracks of the uplifted greywacke upon which the Cape Palliser lighthouse stands.

The fissured faces of these cliffs and outcrops is also home to a shrubby daisy that is one of the parents of some of our most popular varieties of Brachyglottis. It is easy to see why the horticultural progeny of Brachyglottis greyi (pictured above) are so resilient to drought and exposure, when one sees this silver-leaved shrub in its natural growing station.

Unlike Brachyglottis greyi, another extremely adaptable shrub, Melicytus crassifolius (shown above, and below, as the brighter green shrubs towards the foreground), is equally at home on cliffs as it is amidst the paddocks that run towards the sea. This species, which is native to open ecologies on either side of Cook Strait, has a distinctive arching growth form that can deliver a sense of dynamism and contrast to plantings.

The recent trip that I made here was mostly devoted to the human marks left upon Palliser Bay by early Maori, as part of preparation for the upcoming book, ‘Vernacular’. This only afforded comparatively minimal opportunities to look into the distinctive flora that resides here, a fascinating array (including the Cook Strait kowhai, Sophora molloyi, and the local variant of Clematis forsteri formerly known as C. hookeriana) that deserves a fuller examination in the future.