A lakeside adventure

THE CONSTANT GARDENER

Last updated 12:02 07/12/2012

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Lake Rotorangi, the grand expanse of water east of Eltham, is a great spot for a picnic or an adventure with the kids.

It's worth a visit but come armed with a a full tank of gas and a good dollop of sunblock.

If you are travelling south from New Plymouth, turn left just north of Eltham and follow the signs from Rawhitiroa Rd. It's nice open country to start with but soon gets wilder as the hills get steeper. Trying to imagine the energy expended clearing these hills of bush is mind boggling. It makes you tired just thinking about it.

While it's mostly grass and more grass, you'll gradually see exotic trees and such superb specimens too. There's less wind here than places near the coast and these exotics love the cold winters and hotter summers. Deciduous trees like oak and ash enjoy the contrast of a chilly winter after a warm summer.

You'll see some lovely oaks and copper beech. One real surprise was a gigantic red horse chestnut tree with bright red flowers happily flowering in a paddock. I don't think I've seen a bigger one. Most horse chestnuts have white flowers but the eastern American ones are usually pink or red, but not usually this big.

Beyond the Mangamingi School is where you encounter the first traces of bush and a few kilometres on you come to a narrow concrete bridge. Stop on the far side if you can and explore the Rukumoana reserve, a round oxbow loop in the river. It's a great swimming spot with calm water. There are a lot of new native plantings on the lower slopes of the steep cliff with original native trees right up at the top on the very steep parts.

Two kilometres on takes you to a new white house with a blue roof on your right. Beside it is the Glen Nui Rd which takes you to the lake. It's easy to miss, so keep a lookout for that house. Soon you'll see a steep greywacke rockface in front, and then you're driving right in under these enormous cliffs.

I was very surprised to see a kowhai tree flowering so late in the season down here. Most bloom from the end of August into September. When I stopped to investigate there was another surprise - a very fine leaf version Sophora godleyi. When you look up at the cliff on your left, there's a host of these tiny leaf kowhai and lots of them are flowering. Some are literally hanging on by a thread of root. It's amazing to think they can grow out of these cliffs where there's no soil and no nutrition. Good job they're in the legume family and can make their own nitrogen fertiliser.

All legumes have this amazing ability to make fertiliser from nitrogen in the air. It's complicated but the roots have nodules containing a bacteria and the two work together to grab nitrogen from the air and turn it into fertiliser. That's why peas and beans are so good for your soil.

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Kowhai seeds are usually transported and triggered by water and that's why they're found along rivers, lakes and even coastlines. If you want to grow your own, you can speed the germination by soaking the seeds overnight. Boil the jug, let it go off the boil and sit a few minutes then soak them in very hot water. By morning the seeds will have doubled in size and will germinate like cress. Without it they will take months to germinate.

As you drive on down, past the houseboats for hire, you'll see hosts of native toetoe. You'll know they are native by the way the flower heads bend as opposed to those introduced from Argentina which have plumes like a white spear. There were also a lot of welcome swallows and this is a perfect feeding territory for them with water to swoop and feed over and cliffs to nest in. And of course you see and hear open country birds like goldfinches, yellow hammers and skylarks.

Travel on over the bridge and the cattle stop and on the right is a group of Spanish sweet chestnut. These are the edible chestnut and the ones Europeans sell in the cold dark autumn nights from braziers on the street.

Even more impressive is the avenue of ancient plane trees. While we know it more commonly as London Plane because it's the dominant tree in London, it's known by botanists as the Spanish or hybrid plane and thus has the name Platanus x hispanica meaning Spanish.

It's the perfect city tree, capable of growing with concrete or tarmac right up to its toes. The ability to cope with pollution is the other winning factor. It does this in several ways, by shedding bark to lose a coating of pollution, and the glossy leaves are easily washed clean by rain.

Under these magnificent trees were some hydrangeas coming in to flower and by the looks of it they've never been pruned. They show nothing untoward happens when you don't prune hydrangeas. They still flower and last year's dead heads get covered up by new blooms.

The other flowering bushes were more of a surprise. There were three Rhododendron ponticum in flower despite being so late in the season and because we don't often see them in New Zealand; unlike England where it has become such a noxious weed.

Years ago it was used as rootstock to graft more desirable cultivars onto and often the top part died but the roots survived and regenerated and thus it became a weed.

Turn left down to the loos and bring a picnic because there are two tables under the trees to sit and contemplate these magnificent plane trees, and listen to the birds which today included a shining cuckoo.

At the far end of this small grassed area is a fantastic radiata pine just left of the Glen Nui station sign. And below that is a healthy old multitrunk lawson cypress. I say healthy because they're so often riddled with canker.

And then one more surprise, a tree with white candles. It's another horse chestnut, only this time it's the very rare Aesculus indica from India, not from the hot, dry areas, more the damp Himalayas in Kashmir. I'm often left wondering who the original planters of these exotic trees were, what their stories would be and how they got hold of these interesting trees in the first place. Today it would be impossible, as New Zealand has closed its borders to new plant imports.

If you still have enough day left and enough energy you could check out Lake Rotokare down the end of Sangster Rd back towards Eltham. Here you can see fernbirds if you're patient. Listen for a sound like two stones being chipped together.

- Taranaki Daily News

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