The fungus that stole the Kiwi Christmas: Feijoa and pohutukawa nurseries promised Govt compo

Myrtle rust will spread further – it's inevitable. That's the grim verdict from nurseryman Vince Naus, whose business is the latest to be hit by the killer fungus.

Vince and Ann Naus discovered myrtle rust spores on 20 six-month-old pohutukawa plants during routine checks at Big Jim's Nursery and Garden Centre in Taranaki. The couple immediately notified the Ministry for Primary Industries, and within two hours staff took away samples to Auckland to be analysed.

On Friday, the bad news they dreaded: confirmation the "yellow pustule-type" spores found on the plant leaves were myrtle rust.

Myrtle rust has now been found at a five properties in the Bay of Islands and north Taranaki.
SUPPLIED

Myrtle rust has now been found at a five properties in the Bay of Islands and north Taranaki.

Their business was one of six properties in North Taranaki, and two in the Bay of Islands, where myrtle rust disease has now been discovered.

READ MORE:
Highly contagious myrtle rust plant disease found in Taranaki
Myrtle rust spreads to five properties in Northland and Taranaki
Biosecurity threats keeps officials awake at nights
Potentially deadly disease to pohutukawa and manuka arrives in Northland

"It was just a matter of time for the spores to spread after they were discovered in Northland," Vince Naus said. "It was inevitable when it got to Raoul Island we would be next, we're the closest to Australia."

The pohutukawa - or Kiwi Christmas tree - has come through a tough conservation battle. Now it faces a new threat.
123rf

The pohutukawa - or Kiwi Christmas tree - has come through a tough conservation battle. Now it faces a new threat.

The couple's 18 year garden centre and nursery business is now a 'restricted area' under 24 hour MPI surveillance, and all trading and plant movements have been stopped until further notice. "Not even lawn clippings, if I mow the lawn, it can be taken away."

A cafe on site would still be open to the public.

Naus said the couple wanted to be open with their customers. "We could have  gathered up the infected plants and chucked them away without telling anyone," he said. "It is more important to let MPI know that the disease is here than try and cover it up."

As New Zealand reaches the end of feijoa season, the bountiful fruit's future is threatened.
VALENTYN VOLKOV

As New Zealand reaches the end of feijoa season, the bountiful fruit's future is threatened.

Naus says the discovery of the disease on his nursery plants is "heartbreaking."

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The couple are not insured but have been assured by MPI they will be compensated for any financial loss.

Ann Naus adds: "No one knows exactly what will happen, it's the unknown and what affect it will have on the native trees which is the real concern for us."

At Clooney restaurant in Auckland, chef Jacob Kear has deconstructed the humble feijoa and rebuilt it as a bowl of ...
KRISTY McKAY / SUPPLIED

At Clooney restaurant in Auckland, chef Jacob Kear has deconstructed the humble feijoa and rebuilt it as a bowl of feijoa sorbet. It is served as part of a $170 degustation menu.

Fifty MPI staff are in Taranaki this weekend undertaking ground surveys with all nurseries and plant centres to identify the extent of the disease spread in the region, MPI regional controller Mark Bateman says.

POHUTUKAWA HAD JUST ESCAPED ONE THREAT

New Zealand's fabled Christmas tree the pohutukawa was hanging by a thread in the early 1990s. Possums and human activity had killed about 90 per cent of the original trees.

Kerikeri nurseryman Tom Lindesay was first in New Zealand to spot myrtle rust, on juvenile pohutukawa.
KATE MOLLOY / FAIRFAX NZ

Kerikeri nurseryman Tom Lindesay was first in New Zealand to spot myrtle rust, on juvenile pohutukawa.

Enter Project Crimson, a community and official project which succeeded far beyond its instigators' wildest dreams.

Since then millions of trees have been planted, including the tree's close relative the rata which was also in decline, and the fate of the two species is assured.

Or is it? In late March sharp-eyed Department of Conservation staff spotted something on remote Raoul Island – 1000 kilometres north of Cape Reinga – that plant lovers and officials have been dreading for years.

Myrtle rust has been discovered at several places in Taranaki. The wwners of Big Jim's Garden Centre, Ann and Vince ...
ANDY JACKSON / FAIRFAX NZ

Myrtle rust has been discovered at several places in Taranaki. The wwners of Big Jim's Garden Centre, Ann and Vince Naus, have discovered the fungus at their nursery.

It was myrtle rust, a fungal disease that has swept across the Pacific from its Central and South American northern Brazilian home over the last 20 years, attacking and destroying plants as it goes.

Pohutukawa, like the native rata, manuka, and ramarama is a myrtle. So are introduced feijoas and eucalypts, both important economic species.

On May 2, Kerikeri nursery owners Tom Lindesay and his wife Julia Colgon saw similar looking yellow marks on juvenile pohutukawa.

AgResearch has sent a collection of seeds to a remote Arctic doomsday vault to guard against the loss of plant species ...
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AgResearch has sent a collection of seeds to a remote Arctic doomsday vault to guard against the loss of plant species if New Zealand is hit by war, disaster - or fungal pestilence.

They instantly alerted the MPI because they recognised by the telltale signs that it was myrtle rust. The fungus had reached the mainland.

The nursery was immediately closed as officials scrambled to investigate whether there were any further outbreaks in the vicinity. There was one found on a neighbouring property.

Just how the disease arrived is uncertain. Though officials believe it arrived by air, NZ First leader Winston Peters is not so sure. A report last year by Scion said if it did come, myrtle rust was also likely to enter through infected plants imported from Australia.

Peters speculated over the possibility of a "stuff-up". The work done by Scion and MPI indicates that while windborne remains a possibility, there are other more probable ways for how it got here.

"It seems incredible that spores carried across the Tasman would avoid the entire west coast and thousands of hectares of suitable host plants to magically land, not just in Kerikeri on the east coast, but by the most fantastical of odds, a nursery," Peters said.

Then this week in Taranaki, Vince and Ann Naus discovered the yellow spores on juvenile pohutukawa. The disease had reached the west coast.

MPI's David Yard, who is leading the defence against the rust, says the rust was has been detected in nurseries because conditions there are ideal, with many vulnerable young plants in sheltered, warm and damp environments.

"Growers have been particularly vigilant in checking their plants. They are experienced plants-people who know what they're looking at. In addition, seedlings are small, looked down on, as opposed to trees in the wild where visible myrtle rust symptoms are likely to be high up in tree tops."

Project Crimson director Gordon Hosking has advocated for some years that New Zealand plants should be grown in Australia to see if they were susceptible.

He believes that myrtle rust will likely be ineradicable, and the key now will be to hunt out genetically-resistant strains.

Already under siege from budget restraints, DOC is reacting with dismay to the new threat. Director-general Lou Sanson says: "This is going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars which takes money away from conservation."

HIT TO ECONOMY

The risk to the economy soon made itself apparent, with shares in manuka honey company Comvita sinking 9.4 per cent as investment analysts cut their valuation for the company.

Comvita are not the only ones in the honey industry concerned by what the myrtle rust could mean to the manuka plant they depend on for their profits.  But the industry might just be in luck, as the rust does not appear to have had a damaging effect on manuka in Australia.

Feijoa growers, too, have been learning to deal with the pesky guava moth. Now they have to cope with a plant pest that may derail an industry that supports more than 200 growers.

Some of the country's eucalyptus plantations might also suffer. Out of 26,000 hectares, 16,000 hectares are either in the South Island or the Central Plateau, both areas where, they hope it will be too cold for myrtle rust to thrive. The remaining 10,000 ha is in lowland regions of the North Island, the area most at risk from spread of the disease.

Two weeks after the discovery in Kerikeri and the nursery is still in lock-down. Restricted Place Notices have been put in place, meaning goods, such as plants, materials and equipment, cannot be moved off the property, effectively closing the business for the time being.

Julia Colgon says MPI staff began destroying all host species on Thursday, whether or not they had been infected. Manuka, kanuka, pohutukawa, rata – all gone.

If the disease is contained, she feels the disruption will have been worth it. "In Australia where it arrived in 2010 it wasn't attacked early on in the robust way that we are dealing with it.

"It's been dreadfully difficult. We've been in this business for 25 years. But we will rebuild the nursery."

 - Sunday Star Times

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