On the trail of the ginkgo

On a whim I decided to go have a look at the ginkgo tree in Maranui Gully, Brooklands Park.

I somehow imagined the tree would have lost its leaves by now, but to my surprise it's only just changing colour from green to butter yellow.

I started at the Kaimata St entrance, with the big red gates and big leaf rhododendrons on both side. Up above there were some huge radiata pines, way bigger than you'd see in their Californian homeland.

Walk in about 100 metres, turn right opposite the third lamp-post and you'll see the famous giant puriri. Reputedly 2000 years old, it's obviously aged, but it's hard to imagine it being that old. More realistically, it's been described as the biggest puriri in any New Zealand city. It's a fine old tree, full of character and holes - and also full of widowmakers, so don't stand there too long. Widowmakers are the huge astelia and collospermum epiphytes growing high in the branches, and they gather water in their fan-shaped arrangement.

Walk on, past the tree and down the slope, and you'll see puriri flowers on the track, bright pink bells, and big ground ferns known as giant horseshoe or marattia - but these are just a taster of what's to come.

There are tuis all around, and partway down the steps you'll see a rosy camellia in flower, which is where they drink nectar.

Down to your left is a big English beech tree with just a few remaining bronzy brown leaves. But right in front of you at the bottom of the path is a beautiful butter yellow maple.

Its Latin name is Acer palmatum which means the maple with a leaf like a hand, having five points. Those hummock red and purple maples we see in gardens are dwarf variants of this original species. If you grow them from seed you get a real mix of leaf shapes and colours. To your left, is a group of big gums and there are huge pines to your right.

From there, cross the bridge, taking notice of bronzy native begonia - Elatostema rugosum. Left of the bridge are several mamaku tree ferns and on the right are some ponga, Dicksonia squarrosa, so it's easy to see our two most common tree ferns together. Ignore paths left and right and aim straight ahead up the steps. Pretty soon you'll be enveloped in giant ferns. This has to be the best fern gully in the whole wide world. Marattia salicina is quite a rare native ground fern, but it's the biggest you'll ever see, and they look fantastic with their bright, shiny leaves. They're so good we might forget why we came here, which was to view the Ginkgo biloba tree in the middle of this circle.

As a student I found this name very hard to spell, because I always wanted to put the second g before the k, like gingko. Not surprising, really, because it's a nonsense name, but here's the story which helped me to spell it properly.

The tree was grown in temple grounds in China, Korea and Japan for centuries, and when Europeans saw them they imagined the tree was extinct in the wild. We now know that's not true, as wild remnants have been discovered in Fujian province.

The tree was first described by Englebert Kaempfer when he was living in Japan.

He tried to use the native name gin-kyo, meaning silver apricot, but his Y was interpreted as a G, and the misspelling has lasted ever since. If I remember gin-kyo I can get the spelling right. The silver apricot bit makes sense too when you see the small, round, apricot-coloured fruit.

That's where the analogy ends, because the fruits possess a rotten fetid smell. I once collected some fruit in Palmerston North but by Ohakea I couldn't stand them any more and threw them out. This explains why we hardly ever see female trees - most trees grown for gardens and parks are grafted male plants to avoid the smelly and slippery fruit.

They're a hazard underfoot on pavements, as well.

But this old tree, planted in the 1880s, is a female.

Despite our very kind climate, ginkgos don't really like coastal Taranaki and grow much better inland a bit.

The ginkgo is vaguely related to the conifer and is the oldest living tree on the planet.

Despite being so ancient, it's more resistant to city pollution than virtually any other. The leaves are shaped somewhat like a duck's foot, often with a spilt down the middle, and thus the species' name biloba meaning two lobes. Despite being a kind of preconifer it loses all its leaves in autumn, when they turn rich golden yellow. The leaves are just turning now on this tree, and the outer part of the leaf goes yellow first to create a sort of two-tone colour.

Having completed the circle around the gully, you'll come across a tree hanging over the track, a native kohekohe with spikes of small white flowers and fruits coming straight out of big fat trunks rather than near the ends of the stems, like most plants. This remarkable ability only happens in the tropics and New Zealand, and is called cauliflory.

It's a great time of year for fungi. I saw bronze, purple, orange and bright red ones on this loop track.

New Zealand has so many fungi, and plenty have never been classified. There's a job for someone - you can name them after your family.

Then you'll walk through those big gums before you join the main track and turn right towards the Bowl of Brooklands. The track has a slight hump, and on the left are more Elatostema rugosum, the native perennial with bronzy leaves. At the front is the somewhat rare version with yellow, limey leaves.

It's all very tropical lowland bush through here and very wet in places. Pukatea trees love this kind of terrain and you'll see lots, including several at the end of the track on the left by the cabbage trees and fence. From here you can wander up the road back to Brooklands, taking time to admire three or four tree dahlias along the left-hand border near the old chimney.

Taranaki Daily News