Rare tree to anchor hotel design

VIRGINIA WINDER
Last updated 05:00 27/06/2014
tree
Glenn Jeffrey
Arborist Bruce MacDonald, architect Murali Bhaskar and hotel owner Philip Brown with the protected ombu tree in the background.

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They're calling it the million-dollar tree.

A heritage-protected Phytolacca dioica, commonly known as an ombu tree, is getting best guest treatment at the site of the new hotel being built in central New Plymouth.

The ombu, which takes up 10 per cent of the land being developed for the $22 million Novotel Hobson hotel, restaurant, cafe and conference centre, is believed to be only one of three in New Zealand.

"The reality is the tree has been around for 150 years, so it has more right to be here than I do and that's why we want to embrace the history of this tree and include it in the development," developer and hotel owner Philip Brown said.

He said the ombu, which is 20 metres tall and has a 25-metre spread, was being treated with utmost care.

To protect the visible part of the tree, it had been surrounded by a chain-link fence and, to safeguard against damage to the roots, any digging was being carried out with caution. If the builders expose any roots, an arborist has to be on site to oversee work and a pile-driver cannot be used to dig the footings.

"They have to be hand dug," Brown said. "That's why I call it the million dollar tree. It's almost like a living part of the project and we think it's a real feature."

Architect Murali Bhaskar said encompassing the tree into the design of the 100-room hotel had been challenging.

"As much as possible, we have tried to celebrate the tree and it will be the anchor of the design," Bhaskar, from Boon Goldsmith Bhaskar Brebner Team Architects, said.

Bruce MacDonald, senior consultant arborist at Asplundh, said the ombu is a healthy tree of great significance.

"This tree here, nationally, would be in the top 10 of notable trees, along with Tane Mahuta (a kauri in Northland)."

MacDonald, the immediate past-president of the New Zealand Arboricultural Association, said the ombu was flourishing on a historical site.

It is where James Mitchinson's Caledonian Nursery was established in the early 1860s on Lemon St, near the Te Henui Cemetery. Mitchinson was responsible for the early importations of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas.

Originating from South America, this ombu is fascinating from an arborist's point of view, MacDonald said.

It has a free-form structure, which has had little intervention from arborists. Instead of having a single trunk, it has half a dozen stems at ground level that have formed a bowl. The form of the branches also change - some are horizontal, some vertical, others have a tortured willow effect and there is also new epicormic growth, which is straight like arrows.

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"Sometimes it will lose its leaves in summer and then have a reflush," MacDonald said. "The wood is incredibly soft, almost like a yucca, but it has the growth rings of a tree.

"The way it morphs and adapts to its environment with the new growth in the middle of the tree, it's like it's ever replenishing itself and will probably be a tree that never dies."

The Novotel complex is due to open mid 2015.

- Taranaki Daily News

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