Beauty in volcano's shadow

GLYN CHURCH
Last updated 08:21 23/11/2012

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It never ceases to amaze how we live with a giant mountain on our doorstep.

As children we were told of the people of Pompeii who were buried by Mt Vesuvius, and left to wonder why they were so daft to live so close to a volcano.

Now look. I live within 200 metres of the national park boundary in the shadow of Taranaki, the most picture-perfect volcano (I continue to tell myself it's benign) in the world.

We don't get up on the mountain often enough these days but I recently took a wander on my own at Dawson Falls.

It's worth stopping at the entrance of the park to look at some fine native shrubs in flower. On the left are several wineberry or Aristotelia serrata with masses of tiny pink bells that look quite delicious. They are called wineberry because of the seeds, which can be eaten or made into wine.

Another edible native is twining through the foliage but you'd be wise to steer clear of the bush lawyer or it will get its claws into you. Closely related to raspberries, these Rubus species have pretty white flowers, but rasping hooks for clinging on and climbing.

We're on safer territory with the three plants of Brachyglottis repanda in flower with large triangular candy- floss flowers. The leaves of this plant are so soft it's been suggested as loo paper for those cut short. In the middle of these is a Schefflera digitata, which means fingers, and is a soft-leaf version of the five-finger family. Up above are three grand rimu with their graceful pendulous foliage and a good example of how these are the dominant trees.

The glossy leaf plant by the gate is Geniostoma ligustrifolium, meaning leaf like a privet, which is a stretch of the imagination. It's one of those natives we never buy, they just appear. The tree above with long olive leaves is a hinau.

Across the road is a mix of coprosma, red peppertree, and olearia.

Thirty years ago only real enthusiasts would have grown these natives but now they're much more common and mainstream too. If you're looking to create a new border or visual barrier in your garden, these are all good garden plants.

As you drive on, you enter a world of darkness with a wall of foliage on either side. If you were to stop, it's nowhere near as dense as it appears, it's just that the shrubs respond to light and the regular roadside pruning, by creating this wall of foliage.

There are three islands of greenery in the road, a bit like bush traffic islands. At the second, pause and look left to see a hedgelike mass of Schefflera foliage. Even this lax open shrub has responded to clipping to create an impenetrable mass of leaves. The third island has an enormous northern rata with loads of epiphytes on board.

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Soon you'll see a white fence and some big wide-leaf mountain cabbage trees behind it. These Cordyline indivisa are light-seekers and found all along the roadside now. They live in a very narrow band of the mountain and are nigh on impossible to grow at sea level. Everyone would want one if they could. There are similar looking plants growing at the same altitude on Mt Kilimanjaro in Kenya. It's as if plants have adapted to the local conditions and found their niche.

The glistening white flowers on the banks on the right are native foxgloves Ourisia macrophylla. It's one of our showier alpine plants and the heart- shape grass-green leaves are a fine foil for the starry flowers.

Up at car park, the alpine air has got to someone as I can hear yodelling. Then 100 metres up the track I meet a brass band in full regalia. It's going to be one of those days, and no-one will believe me.

Bring a jumper and a hat, and take a wander up the hill. It's always much colder up here and yet we are lulled into a false sense of security after a drive in an enclosed vehicle from sea level.

The track at the top of the car park is really firm underfoot.

On the right, just over a wooden drain, is a daisy bush Senecio elaeagnifolius. It's another of those mountain plants that is hard to grow at sea level, but the marbled leaves are very appealing to gardeners.

There's lots of mosses, lichens and ferns, and even the tree trunks are covered in them. Up here the most obvious tree is Hall's totara with attractive orangey trunks and long strips of peeling bark.

All along the side of the track are native grass trees or Dracophyllum, and the flax-like Collospermum.

But it's the Goblin forest that fascinates most people. On rainy days it's sodden but luxuriant, and on a fine day like today it is all shadows and light. Pace yourself and remember you have to walk back the same distance.

Stop off at the viewing platform on the way back to your car to admire the view Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe offer, if it's fine.

It's a good chance to get up close and personal with the trees like kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa) and Hall's totara. We so rarely get the chance to look down on tree canopies.

The kamahi is the dominant tree on our mountain and that's unique because every other mountain in New Zealand is dominated by beech trees and there are none at all on our mountain.

Kamahi is also a favourite fodder for honey bees. Looking out across the forest the kamahi is rounded and dark green, whereas the Hall's totara are more pointy and an olive tone.

On your drive back down the mountain, stop at the falls. It only takes a few minutes to walk to the falls and admire the cascading water and the overhanging native fuchsia trees.

If you look out to the bush across the way, you'll see white clematis draped on the tops of the trees, glistening in the sunlight.

You need to be quite nimble for this short walk because there are so many steps, but it's worth it.

One of the joys of this mountain road is that we can appreciate it from the car, so it's a great route for a drive on a sunny day, and a good place to bring an aged relative who can't walk far.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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