Natural beauty sets scene for Womad

Last updated 08:33 14/03/2014

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It's that wonderful time of year again - Womad time, the best three days of the year for me. I just love new music, and what better place to discover it than Womad.

I've spent my whole life searching for new music - ever since I was 6 years old when my slightly more mature cousins played me the new rage - Elvis Presley. Nowadays I'm discovering the delights of Bartok and Bruckner, but it's all good stuff.

At Womad we'll sample music from diverse countries like Portugal, Cuba and Nigeria, and places whose names make you stop and think about where they are, such as Reunion Island. You might need an atlas or cellphone to solve the family discussions about where the music comes from.

But you might just spend a few minutes searching out my other favourite things and that's the trees. The festival site has some truly magnificent trees and it's easy for us locals to take them for granted, but imagine for one moment how challenging it would be to host Womad on a flat sportsfield with no trees in sight.

For a start you couldn't have two concerts playing at the same time. Our beautiful Brooklands site has several advantages such as the different contours and levels of the land. This allows two simultaneous concerts without too much noise bleeding from one to the other.

And when it does happen it's because of the deaf sound engineers turning it up too loud.

And the trees are not just a beautiful backdrop, they help absorb and baffle the sound. For residents who feel the sound isn't baffled enough, all I can say is it would be much worse without the trees and please bear with us because these three days bring such pleasure to so many people.

Many of the trees in this park are really special and have a story to tell. Down by the Bowl stage near the lake are two groups of very unusual trees. Both are deciduous conifers which is odd because most conifers are evergreen like pine trees or Italian cypress.

The other thing that's weird about both of them is they grow in swampy places and even downright wet places where the base of the tree can be a metre or two under water for months without any ill effect. I've walked in some of the Florida Everglades forests in water up to my chest, marvelling at the trees, and all the while keeping a wary eye out for alligators! Actually the alligators play a part in the life cycle of these trees in Florida. With the upcoming dry season the gators need to create a water hole to see them through the drought time. So they thrash about with their tail creating a hollow where water will collect, and this fills with water and dead leaves in a big gluggy mess. The acidic rotting leaves will melt the limestone coral rock underneath and this allows the swamp cypress trees to get a foothold where their roots can penetrate more than just a few centimetres.

I don't know why, but I always associated these swamp cypress trees with just Florida, but they grow westwards to Louisiana and up the Mississippi, and northwards through Georgia and the Carolinas into Virginia. Most of this country was incredibly swampy and mosquito-ridden until the Europeans arrived and began draining the lands for cropping.

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There's a group of these swamp cypresses to the right of the Bowl Stage beside the blue zoo sign, and you'll notice the fluted trunks and soft, green, delicate leaves. In a few weeks' time these will turn a rich orange colour before falling.

Walk along to the Dell Stage and there, on the water's edge, are several large trees with similar but slightly larger leaves, and this is the dawn redwood. It hails from half a world away in western China and was thought to be extinct until 1941. Believe it or not, botanists record and catalogue extinct trees as well the the living ones. These experts knew about the dawn redwood from fossils but assumed it was extinct until two foresters found the real thing growing in swampy country in Szechuan. The tree has an awful Latin name, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, but take it to bits and it all makes sense. Meta is Greek and means "beyond" or in this case "before" the sequoia, which is the Latin word for the Californian redwoods. Sequoia trees are named after an Indian man who invented the first alphabet for native Americans.

Then for the tongue twister species name, our tree looks vaguely like a glyptostrobus, another rare water-loving conifer and "oides" means "looks like". Metasequoia glyptostroboides was one of the first plant names I ever learnt. I figured if I could get my tongue and memory around that one, then all the rest of the Latin names would be easy by comparison.

The tree has been around on the planet for so long it's part of the layers laid down which turned into coal and oil, so you're probably driving around with some of it your tank. Luckily for us, those early collectors spread the seeds around the world back in the early 1940s so we can enjoy these trees today. The ones besides the Dell Stage are some of the biggest in the world outside of China, and that's because things grow so fast in New Zealand. There are even bigger ones beside the palm lawn in Pukekura, and beside the house in the Tupare garden in Mangorei Rd.

It's easy to confuse the two trees until you have a piece of both in your hands, and then it's easy to see the flatter broader leaflets on the dawn redwood, and the feathery point in all directions of the Swamp cypress leaves. I think of it like this - the Chinese version is well groomed and the American has a bad hair day.

- Taranaki Daily News

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