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Geoff's story

In 2005, Professor Ian Spellerberg of Lincoln University conceived the idea of producing a book about the contributions made to conservation by concerned individuals, asking them to outline their work and motivation. The following is based on Geoff Davidson's story. The book "Living with Natives" was published by Canterbury University Press in 2008.

You could say it all began with second prize for my sand posy at the Cheeseman Memorial Native Flower Show in 1954. But then my ‘life-time' interest in native plants went into recess for 20 years.

My interest was re-kindled upon my return from an extended OE when I pondered the question of what made New Zealand so very different from all the other countries I had seen. Six months later I concluded it was New Zealand's native flora. Our mountains, rivers, beaches, the light and even the people were not so very different from overseas, but our native vegetation seemed to me to be the defining characteristic.

Simultaneously, living in the foothills of Auckland's Waitakere Ranges, I became aware of the bulldozers and chainsaws that were actively destroying the very thing that made us unique. These experiences led me to join conservation movements such as the Native Forest Action Council and locally, the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society.

When the Piha Road was widened, members of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society collected and potted up some of the many native seedlings in the path of the bulldozers. It was this exercise that made me aware of how little we all knew about our native flora, even those of us wanting to see it preserved.

It appeared I could make my greatest contribution by growing native plants so they would be readily available for enthusiasts and gardeners. Gradually, from the point of knowing nothing about growing plants, to making a hobby of it, then finding my section over-run with potted plants, I started to sell them. The Oratia Native Plant Nursery was not an overnight success story. The late 1970s and '80s were ‘Muldoon' years when farmers were getting subsidies to destroy bush. My own pioneering father could not understand why I would want to grow what he had spent a lifetime chopping down.

The excitement of new discoveries came thick and fast as I added to the sum total of my knowledge. By wandering areas of bush on my family's property and throughout the Waitakere Ranges, I became reacquainted with the common tree species such as kauri and rimu and learnt to recognise the less common species such as tawari and mangeao. Soon I learnt that they are less common for very good reason - they are terribly slow or difficult to grow. Even now after 30 years experience, I could not claim to know their secrets. However, the successes outweighed the failures and the plants grew, the sales increased and the hobby became something more than part-time. Never having given much thought to building a business, my mind was concentrated by marriage and a family and I was forced to adopt a rather more business-like perspective.

Through the 1980s I gained knowledge of our plants through trial and error. I stayed a step ahead of my customers and generally had the required rare and unusual specimen somewhere at the back of the nursery. Sometimes it took more time and a bit of diligent sleuthing to acquire a particular plant. I remember proudly calling an Auckland Museum staff member to announce that I had the ‘Holy Grass' that they had wanted 10 years before. Holy grass is not uncommon, but it was hard enough to determine whether a particular grass was a native, let alone what its genus and species was. The volume of the "Flora of NZ" on grasses (Graminae) was not published until 2000. Prior to that the only useful book on grasses was the "Manual of the Indigenous Grasses of New Zealand" written by John Buchanan and published in 1880. His sketches were all I had to show what Holy grass looked like. Indeed Holy grass (Hierochloe redolens) is a cosmopolitan species growing around the world and used in many places for the same ritualistic purpose at funerals. The dried, cut foliage emits a pleasantly strong scent that continues for years and disguises other odours common in pre-refrigeration days.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games were a great boost to both the business and the awareness of native plants, particularly in Auckland. We were contracted to grow thousands of plants for high profile sites and at the games village, now the Auckland University Tamaki campus. One particular plant, still at the University and flowering abundantly every November, is the rare Kunzea sinclairii which is only known in the wild high up on Mt. Hobson (Hirakimata) on Great Barrier Island. Jump forward fifteen years to my ‘obsession' with Motu Kaikoura which protects the entrance to Port Fitzroy Harbour, and I am hopeful of finding the Kunzea on the island's hot dry clay slopes.

The nursery gained national recognition when it was contracted to supply the bulk of the specimen trees for the Bush City at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Since then I have been amazed at the way native plants have become ‘mainstream'. They are the most vitally important ammunition in the fight to rescue New Zealand from the desecration we have wrought. Even more amazing is the fact that the charge to right 150 years of environmental wrongs is being led by the most conservative of organisations - our local district and city councils.

No-one in the 1970s or '80s would have predicted that within ten years councils would be using the Resource Management Act to demand compliance with the innovative concept of planting natives to protect water quality. Fortunately I had been playing around with some obscure species that almost no-one recognised and certainly no customers had previously asked for. Isolepis nodosus, Eleocharis acuta, Juncus gregiflorus and Baumea articulata were still mysteries to me, but gradually I began to recognise their distinguishing features. Then there was light.

The publication in 1989 by the DSIR of "Wetland Plants in New Zealand" by Peter Johnson and Pat Brooke brought much clarity to this confusing section of our flora. While the several volumes of the "Flora of New Zealand" have been a great help, none of my books on native plants has been so well used as the wetland book. It is not surprising I was confused. In 2005 I went on a tramp in a wetland with several of New Zealand's top botanists. There was a lot of debate and no conclusion on the subtle differences between two species, Tetraria capillaris and the rare Schoenus carsei. If even esteemed scientists could not agree, pity help the amateurs!

These species are not yet best sellers from a commercial point of view, but they are important in their own element and we as a nation must know what they need to survive. Our fragile wetlands need all the help they can get. With no active assistance from us, it is plants like these that will be lost in a flood of willows. But it is not enough to ensure they have adequate water and are free from weed invasions. Many species are in danger of being lost as their habitats evolve and we prevent new wetlands from naturally occurring. With NZ's history of habitat modification, we just do not know enough about the requirements of some of these species in the wild. By growing them in the nursery we gain some insights into their needs and how best to provide for them once they are planted.

Understanding a plant's needs, should ideally come from observations in the wild. Observing whether the young plant started to grow in shade or sun, wet or dry, may give a clue as to how to start the germination process. Most people think ferns need shady, wet conditions and to a point that is correct, but only so the wind-dispersed spore can germinate. Once developed, many ferns do not like the wet of a swamp or bog. They can tolerate quite dry conditions. For example the black mamaku tree fern (Cyathea medullaris) prefers the open, newly-disturbed site of a land slide and will establish quickly ahead of other species if the slope is south-facing. Kauri seed needs the brighter light of a ridge top to germinate where it is normally dry and barren, but the growing tree is perfectly happy in damper richer soils so long as the shade factor is not too dense.

I have pursued a parallel interest in restoring our natural habitats as a founding trustee of the NZ Native Forests Restoration Trust. This interest has given me the incentive to travel and see more of our native plants in the wild. Jointly the trustees have contributed countless hours to the preservation of 6000 hectares of various habitats by purchasing land throughout the North Island and to date one property in the South Island. It is now recognised that greater biodiversity is achieved by adding to existing blocks of land rather than protecting a patchwork of smaller blocks. The philosophy now behind our land purchases is that Nature needs only assistance and an opportunity to recreate her forests and natural environments. We do not need to try to tell her how to proceed. Once we have acquired the land, with seed-sources nearby, Nature will rapidly regenerate habitats in a natural way if we control the pests, both animals and plants.

It is disturbing to see the mess we as a nation have made of our environment. Even an important sanctuary such as Waipoua Forest was the remnant left after the loggers had taken the easiest, most accessible areas. The NZ Native Forests Restoration Trust's vision has been to restore the entire catchment of the Waipoua River, and to ensure it is protected from the ridgeline to the sea. Whether the land is regrowth forest, scrub or quality grassland, we have seen the need to restore it to its full potential by protecting it by both purchase and covenant. To us this is the most ‘profitable' use. It is exciting to seize the initiative and take on the challenge of seeing a purchase added to an existing reserve, creating a larger entity that will be more sustainable and capable of sustaining greater diversity.

One of the Trust's early purchases was in the Rangitoto range south of Otorohanga. Adjacent to the Mangatutu Ecological Reserve, it is now the base for a project which has reduced pest numbers and increased the population of kokako that had been declining. More recently, we negotiated with several landowners of a wetland in Northwest Nelson at Mangarakau. The 150 hectares we bought supplement the 200 hectares already owned by the Department of Conservation and create more than the sum of the two halves. It is now possible that the area may be recognised as a Ramsar wetland site of international importance.

On behalf of the NZ Native Forests Restoration Trust, I have researched purchase options north of Dunedin and on Stewart Island. We have plans to extend some of our existing reserves by further purchases. There are numerous opportunities for great ecological outcomes by adding to other reserves. With Trust support, I led a campaign to convince the Government to purchase Kaikoura Island adjacent to Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. It is an island that has been heavily modified. First cleared for farming, then neglected, it is now well on the way to being revegetated without any active assistance. Now the Motu Kaikoura Trust has been given management responsibility for the environmental restoration of the island and the establishment of a youth camp there to encourage others to support the healing of our land.

The 21st Century starts with an explosion of such restoration projects by all sorts of people all over the country. I'm happy to be part of the process.