Preserving ferns fulfils passion

KAY BLUNDELL
Last updated 05:00 17/02/2014
Susannah Wilson and Jack Cowen
LIFELONG INTEREST: Susannah Wilson and Jack Cowen stock about 9000 species in their Manakau fern nursery.

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A passion for saving New Zealand ferns from destruction in logging forests prompted Jack Cowen and Susannah Wilson to establish the first fern nursery in the lower North Island.

Cowen's lifelong interest in ferns was first sparked about 30 years ago when he worked part-time as a nurseryman, when not at sea commercial fishing.

Nearing retirement, he and long-time friend Wilson decided to establish Ferns of Manakau on State Highway north of Otaki.

"I would come back from sea and visit beautiful green forests, go back a month later and it was just a desert because the loggers had been through," Cowen said.

He approached Hancock's Forestry Management and secured exclusive permits to remove ferns before logging from parts of their large forest north of Taupo.

He and Wilson started redeveloping the run-down Manakau property, a former camelia nursery, four years ago, installing new bores, pumps, irrigation and shade houses, and have been trading for over a year. Their stock of about 9000 plants, over 60 species, includes silver tree ferns (ponga), black tree fern (mamaku) and rough tree fern (wheki). Referring to himself as a "fern rescuer", he has saved ferns ranging in size from about 33cm to five metres tall, some 40-50 years old. When he brings them back from the forest he removes the large fronds to encourage growth of new roots and fronds (koru). Potted in a mixture of forest soil, untreated bark chips and a small amount of manure, he has a 90 per cent success rate in re-rooting and new growth, which takes 6 months to two years, depending on the size and species.

Some ferns, like mamaku (the giant main canopy of the forest), thrived in light, airy conditions while others, like soft tree ferns (katote), preferred shade.

Relying mainly on gate sales so far, with customers coming from Wellington, Palmerston North and New Plymouth and as far away as Europe and Canada, they also freighted ferns around the country as far south as Otago. "People love the silver fern, it is part of our national identity," he said.

Wilson said they were starting to supply nurseries and landscape businesses and were hoping to add district councils to their customer base.

They both work full-time, seven days a week and relied on casual staff during busy potting times.

Spending about $250,000 on restoring the property, including drainage and investing in new machinery, they were just breaking even but hoped to start make a profit next year.

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Spray-free vegetables and herbs grown on the property are also popular with customers.

Two large friendly dogs, an alsatian and a labrador meet customers at the gate while ducks and chickens roam around the 1.8ha block.

"Trev" the rooster was a star attraction after pulling a mini cart in the latest "Hobbit" movie.

The lush ferney had become a popular backdrop for wedding photographs.

With four-years of hard graft nearly behind him, Cowen relished his trips to the quiet serene forest.

"I just love it. There are no cars, no noise, and I am preserving some of the beautiful forest," Cowen said.

- The Dominion Post

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