The High Road

July 15, 2020

Whilst still full of energy and blissfully unaware that I had left my lunch in the car, we beat a path up the extremely steep hills on Wellington’s southwestern coast on Saturday, in pursuit of a number of elusive species (seemingly with a strong focus on leafless plants on this occasion).

En route to the hillside that was our main destination (in which the Cook Strait kowhai, leafless clematis and leafless lawyer grow together), we were in a good position to observe large-scale landscape patterns like the coastal woodland shown above – in which Hebe parviflora punctuates the canopy as a series of bright green points. The vertiginous drop to the coast was also subjected to some degree of scrutiny, as illustrated by the meeting of great minds in the image below.

We have a bit of a thing for Hebe parviflora within our design work, and I have observed this species in a number of places within the wild; from Northland down to Wellington. This tree hebe is relatively common in the Wellington region, including within areas abutting the city (such as Miramar Peninsula and Brooklyn), and should be planted much more in the capital.

As alluded to previously, the harsh conditions associated with this section of coastline encourage a level of circumspection in several species; including the presence of plants that have almost completely given up on leaves – such as the leafless clematis (Clematis afoliata) pictured below, left. Despite having seen this enigmatic species in several places within the South Island, this was the first time that I had encountered C. afoliata in the North Island (where it endures in Wellington and the Wairarapa).

Part of the appeal in moving through landscapes such as these lies in taking note of the transitions between distinct zones, whether as a result of shifts in altitude, wave action or exposure to salt-laden winds. This was readily apparent as we descended to the base of the hills, where Metrosideros perforata (pictured above, right) begins to appear within shrubland behind the coastal fringe – contributing to a subtle change in character within the sequence of habitats from hilltop to shingle beach.

Following a couple of undistinguished moments of orienteering, we wended our way to the hillside that was our main objective, where a small number of plants of Sophora molloyi endure within steep ground. My sole prior experience of Cook Strait kowhai was at Cape Turakirae, where gnarled, bonsai-like shrubs looked distinctly set upon by the coastal winds (cowering on the leeward side of a large outcrop).

At this site (near Te Kopahou), Sophora molloyi is able to attain heights more familiar to anyone who has cultivated this popular kowhai; with plants taking on a broad, spreading form up to 2m high. One of the distinguishing characteristics of S. molloyi is its unusually long flowering season, which spans much of winter and spring. We were fortunate to catch the first of the season’s flowers, although based on the quantity of buds forming on certain specimens, a few individuals from this population look set to erupt into a spectacular blaze of yellow in early August.