Lost plant back in Taranaki

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SARAH FOY
Last updated 08:13 19/06/2012
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Whanganui botanist Colin Ogle

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It was a camping trip. Botanists from Wellington pitched tents in Easter 1978 at the North Taranaki coast, near the now-existing Whitecliffs Walkway.

It was a holiday - after all it was Easter - but there was purpose, not just pleasure, in the jaunt north by the city's botanical society.

Colin Ogle, a former Taranaki man then living in Wellington. helped to lead the trip.

His knowledge of Taranaki plant life and vegetation was wide- ranging. He hails from a Hawera farming family of five children. Younger brother Nigel Ogle is the brains behind renowned tourist destination Tawhiti Museum.

"Over the years I got to explore quite a bit of Taranaki and I'd been up to Whitecliffs earlier with my wife and young son."

Their campsite was an idyllic spot by the mouth of the Wai Pingao stream, near where the waterway meets the coast. And that's where they found the New Zealand spinach, (Tetragonia teragonioides) a sprawling edible plant struggling to survive in its natural habitat.

Along for the trip was the late- Tony Druce, recognised in local botanical circles for his unparalled ability to recognise species in the field.

He'd surveyed a lot of Egmont National Park while working for the DSIR (now disbanded) and explored much of the coastline, although not this North Taranaki spot.

"He came along partly because he loved field trips, but also because it filled in gaps in his own knowledge," recalls Colin.

Tony's keen eye spotted the spinach. Intrigued, he took home material - seeds or cuttings, Colin is not sure. A year or two later he was back in touch, asking Colin if he fancied growing some of the spinach in his Wellington garden.

"He said it was a very good vegetable. They ate it all the time and it was easy to grow."

The Ogle family duly planted their specimens, finding it useful throughout the year. It's a semi- herbaceous spreading shrub with distinctive fruit and tiny yellow flowers. Colin describes the seed heads as small and hard, covered with prickly horns at the end.

"It's nothing like ordinary spinach," he says, which is more upright, resembling the growth habit of beetroot or silverbeet. Its Maori name is kokihi, and there's also a climbing variety, traditionally seen under boxthorn hedges on old Taranaki properties, says Colin.

In 1988 the Ogles shifted to Whanganui. Since then they've lived in three houses in the city, each time taking their spinach with them.

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Over the years Colin says he attempted to get DOC interested in transplanting the spinach back to the coast but "for some reason it never happened".

This is where quiet conservationist Bill Clarkson comes in. The New Plymouth man is most well known for his work at Moturoa School, helping establish a native plant programme 16 years ago. This programme and others in the school are model environmental hubs, having received awards over the years.

Colin knew of Bill. Like himself, Bill is steeped in a botanical heritage.

One brother Jim was a former DOC officer based at Stratford and is currently area manager for the Chatham Island office. Another, Professor Bruce Clarkson, is an author who is head of the biodiversity and ecology research centre at Waikato University.

"It took Bill and Moturoa School, and his work there and work with threatened plants in Taranaki, to make it happen," says Colin, who sent seeds up north, explaining the plant's history and significance to Bill.

The first batch of seedlings found a home alongside New Plymouth's coastal walkway, as well as helping establish plants in the school's garden. Over several years new material was propagated.

This year Moturoa students grew 100 of the seedlings successfully from seed and hardened them off ready for the Whitecliffs project. The planting day last Tuesday also involved senior students from Mimi School.

Colin says the spinach's coastal location around the country has probably contributed to its struggle for survival. "It has been pushed out by urban development, by roading, big farms, stock grazing."

It's not endangered, he says, pointing out it can be bought in seed packets and is native to Australia, South America and parts of the Pacific. He's hoping goats grazing nearby won't tuck into the baby spinach plants. "The future is a little bleak, but they might just hang on."

As for the young Moturoa and Mimi planters, Colin was impressed. "They certainly went into it with great enthusiasm and appropriate care."

Bill Clarkson says Colin's involvement in last week's planting - as well as that of his wife Robyn - was important.

"He was able to talk to children as they sat on the sand and driftwood at the actual Wai Pingao site, about the day the plant was first discovered in 1978 and the history of how it was held in cultivation. This added a lot of significance and sense of history to the occasion."

The students were careful, gentle and efficient in the planting, notes Bill. Their "pride and responsibility in the care they took" was evident. Each plant was carefully patted in and pieces of driftwood added to help shelter and protect them.

Also key in the organisation were DOC community relations ranger Mike Tapp and biodiversity supervisor Emily King, who joined the planting team for the day. The DOC staff is very supportive of this project, says Bill.

"If the care these children have taken is any indicator, then I think there is a very good chance for the survival of these plants."

Prize-winning plant centre

Moturoa School notched up a fourth environmental accolade this month, with an award from the Taranaki Regional Council.

This comes after the school was named a New Zealand Plant Conservation Award recipient in 2010. In 1999 and 2004 it also won a TRC environmental award.

The small New Plymouth school boasts an environmental and native plant learning programme, dating back to Arbor Day 1994 when it first involved children in planting around its grounds. Its gardens are a resource so children learn about New Zealand's unique native flora, and in particular special local plants such as the Paritutu korokio (Corokia cotoneaster).

In 1996 a purpose-built propagation unit (the "Trees for Survival Programme") was established with funding and help from New Plymouth Rotary West and Port Taranaki. Children are involved in the cycle of plant propagation, growing from seed and cutting material, as well as returning the final product back to its natural environment. Its focus is Taranaki plants, particularly regionally threatened plants.

Bill Clarkson, a former teacher at Moturoa and driver of the programme, says it's a "powerful learning opportunity for the children".

"Not only do they learn about plants first-hand - their scientific name, life cycle, unique characteristics, related habitats and ecosystems - but they are also involved in real conservation experiences and actions," he said.

"By putting these plants back into original habitats and locations they know they are helping ensure their survival. This gives a sense of pride and achievement and provides tangible learning experiences as well as a strong connection with their local environment."

One plant they've saved is the regionally threatened coastal plant koheriki or Scandia rosifolia, now back at its original Okato site, the Maitahi scientific reserve.

- Taranaki Daily News

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