Even before becoming the home of the Lord of the Rings, New Zealand was known around the world as a natural paradise. Due to its remote location, it was one of the last places where humans set foot, allowing it to develop a rich and distinct biodiversity. In the Northland region of the main island, an ancient kauri forest is home to the oldest examples of the native species.
Agathis australis are commonly referred to as kauri trees, which is what they are called by the Maori, the Polynesian people who were the first to settle New Zealand more than 700 years ago. Today, centuries after European settlers moved to the island, there are an estimated 600,000 Maori living on the islands. Their isolated homeland led to a unique culture, language, and mythology.
The mythical origin of the Tane Mahuta
The oldest living kauri tree takes its name from this mythology. Tane Mahuta means ‘Lord of the Forest’, and is the mythological son of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, the sky father and the earth mother. Tane is the god of forests and birds, and according to some legends, also created mankind. He is said to have molded Tiki from the soil, who then became the first man. He is immortalized in countless Tiki statues throughout Polynesian cultures.
The kauri tree with the same name is somewhere between 1250 and 2500 years old. In addition to being the oldest of its species, it’s also the largest, at more than 50 meters (170 feet) tall. Intensive conservation efforts have kept the tree standing in recent years, even diverting rivers toward the tree to relieve dehydration. Kauri trees are also threatened by increased numbers of visitors, as their surface roots are sensitive and can be damaged by heavy foot traffic. Visitors can also spread the deadly kauri collar rot, a disease that has plagued kauri forests since the 1970s. The pathogen that causes the it can stick to the shoes of visitors, so as a precaution it is recommended that they are thoroughly washed before entering the forest.
In some ways, it’s incredible that these trees have survived as long as they have. They are remnants of an ancient subtropical rainforest that once grew on the islands, and are not found naturally anywhere outside of the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. Dating back to the Jurassic period, they managed to compete with more highly evolved plants thanks to a few unique characteristics.
Leaves and other ‘litter’ dropped from kauri trees are more acidic that of other trees, creating an area around that base of the tree that breaks down organic material. These nutrients are sunk deep into the soil around the tree, depriving nearby plants of what they need to survive. This area has a rich mycorrhizal network that works with the tree to help it thrive (read more about mycorrhizal networks in The Mother Tree).
Another unique element of the kauri tree is its growth pattern. It grows quickly upward, and once it reaches a certain height, it loses its lower limbs to prevent vines from climbing its trunk. It then spreads out to create a wide canopy, soaking up as much sun as possible.
Logging and ‘gumdigging’ greatly reduce Kauri population
Although the Maori people revered them, early European settlers were quick to take the ax to the valuable natural resource. Heavy logging throughout the 19th and into the 20th century reduced native tree populations to just 10% of what they had been in 1800.
Perhaps more significant than logging was the ‘gumdigging’ industry that sprouted up around the kauri trees. As they grow and shed their branches and bark, kauri resin also falls to the base of the tree, later fossilizing into kauri ‘gum’ (similar to amber). Very old kauri trees are often hollow in the middle, collecting large deposits of gum. The oldest samples of gum tested are estimated to be 175 million years old.
Why was kauri gum so valuable?
The Maori people collected and used kauri gum for generations. They found it had many uses: fresh gum could be chewed like chewing gum, older gum was highly flammable and useful for starting fires, and gum mixed with pigments made an excellent ink for the traditional moko face tattoos.
Early European settlers found further use for the gum. Mixed with other oils, it made a very high quality varnish, which became highly sought after in Britain, the USA, and Australia. Originally an abundant and easily accessible resource, ‘gumdiggers’ scoured the forests looking for deposits.
When kauri gum started to become more scarce, some unscrupulous gumdiggers made deep gouges in the sides of kauri trees, returning later to collect the fresh gum. This frequently resulted in the death of the tree, and was banned from state forests in 1905. At this point, however, gumdigging had become one of the founding industries of New Zealand, and provided more income to the settlers than farming. An estimated 450,000 tons of kauri gum was exported between 1850 and 1950.
One of the few remaining kauri forests is the Waipoua Forest, which escaped deforestation due to its remote location. It was made into a natural sanctuary in 1952, and is the home of the great Tane Mahuta, as well as another enormous kauri tree called Te Matua Ngahere, or Father of the Forest.
Today, Waipoua and surrounding forests hold about 75% of all remaining mature kauri trees, and is maintained by the Waipoua Forest Trust, a community based volunteer organization. Kauri trees are not endangered, but they are listed as conservation dependent, so thanks to their efforts the trees will survive for future generations.
Special thanks to fellow blogger and New Zealander Liz for the gumdigging scoop. Check out her blog over at https://exploringcolour.wordpress.com/.
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