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This artcle was published in The Fringe, March 2014

Nikau

In the years of writing these articles I assumed “Everyone knows a nikau” so had not bothered to write about them. But they are so iconic and are such a feature of West Auckland their time has come.

Remember the old Waitakere City Council logo with its stylised nikau representing Westies?
And look at Downtown Auckland. The street trees that evoke the spirit of New Zealand are not the deciduous exotics but the handsome clusters of nikau.

All palms belong to the same family (called Arecaceae) and have evolved from a common ancestor, though the nikau has perhaps travelled the furthest as it is regarded as the southernmost palm in the world.

The classic form of a single trunk with ‘feather-duster’ top is easily recognised and hence nikau is widely known. Use your imagination and you can see nikau and coconuts are quite similar in structure.

It is not commonly known that nikau is not a tree such as the kauri or oak. In fact it is a monocotyledon which makes it a close relative of grass, orchids, tulips, lilies and many other grass-like plants. But an overly large grass, and as such it does not have annual growth rings to tell its age as trees do. Nor do the distinctive circular growth scars up the trunk give any indication of a nikau’s age. The trunk does not develop, even in good conditions, until the plant is at least 15 years old. Once developed, the trunk will have a scar for every frond that drops off, but there may be 3 or 4 fronds in a year so counting the scars does not tell you its age.

Nikau grow throughout much of the North Island, and in the South Island down to Okarito in the west, and Banks Peninsula in the east. The closely related forms growing on the Chatham and Kermadec Islands are quite distinctive but their current names do not satisfy the obvious differences in their growth forms. Even some of the mainland forms are strikingly variable. It is sad that to the human eye it is the Waitakere nikau which is least attractive, with rather scruffy fronds particularly in the open. It is a plant of tall forest and prefers the shelter and shade it receives there. In contrast the Chatham Island form is bigger and bolder, retaining its healthy frond tips even in strong winds.

The flowers of nikau are produced in large, branched clusters or panicles with separate male and female flowers intermixed along the branches, in a ratio of 2 males for each female. To assist cross-pollination the males flower first, ensuring the female receives pollen from a different plant. The actual flowers are quite nondescript but the buds are often an attractive purple/mauve colour while the ripe fruit are bright red to attract the attention of passing kereru.

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Comments
On 27/02/2015, Anson Vickers said:
Hi Geoff, I live in the 'no exit' high numbers end of Takahe Road. Titirangi South, North facing, overlooking Green Bay, sheltered below the ridge from the Southerlies of Wood Bay. The family bought 2 long narrow sections here in 1967. Re subdivided to a steep top section and a flatter bottom r.o.w. section both below the road. Originally there was nothing but gorse and blackberry. We slashed and burnt and bull-dozed the house site on the upper (steep) section and the house was started in September 1971. Both sections were heavy clay. The bottom section was sold off and a house built there also 10 years later. From 1967 onwards we planted two African Flame Trees and and lots of flax for the Tuis. We also planted 1 medium sized nursery Kauri as well as a Norfolk Pine and a Phoenix Palm. There were many other natives planted but no others survived. From the outset Kanuka sprouted everywhere. My Mother transplanted 75 mm Kanuka mainly to the boundaries of both properties which are now 12-15 meter mature trees. Ponga also sprung up everywhere and still thrive. Our property, the upper section, also has a large Council road frontage extending down 25 meters from the road. This frontage and the rest of the section are now fully bush covered. Las year I had the now 25 meter Norfolk taken out as well as the near 18 meter Phoenix Palm. Apart from the Kanukas and Pongas many Nikaus, 5 Kauris, many Pittosporum and Eugenoides and many species of fern have self-seeded. One of the Nikaus sef-seeded right beside or even partially under the concrete driveway 40 years ago. It is still only 60 cm high stunted and barely hanging in there but I can't get to the roots so can't shift it. Other Nikaus have arrived, one first noticed only 5 years ago is already bigger than the one next the driveway. Weeds have always been a problem, never more so than now ! Spreading from adjoining properties we have a constant battle with wandering Jew and flowering Ginger. Black eyed Susan and Jasmine, although ver pretty, threaten to climb the trees and choke them to death. In the last 3 years I have started weed-eating and then spreading wood chip or mulch. At least 54 cubic meters (9 truck load) so far. I'm lucky, my son is an arborist, the wood chip coild have cost over $2000 but was free. Part of the road frontage I can't chip because it's far too steep. So I'm looking to buy Native ground-covers, starting with Lobelia Angulata, Metrosideros Perforata and Acaema inermis purpurea. Most of the year is plenty moist, it is a rain forrest, but for 3 months starting mid December very dry. Any other suggestions of rapid growing ground covers that will tolerate full and partial shade would be much appreciated. Hope that this verbose diatribe of the nearly 50 year history of this little plot of land is appreciated by either you or someone else !
On 20/03/2015, Geoff Davidson said:
Hi Anson, Use the search capability on the website. CLick on the shade icon and then the dropdown arrow to find 'Groundcovers' then search. I suggest Gunneras species for wet conditions and Leptostigma for dry. Geoff