Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: Researching Rata

This week the Sunday Scribblings suggestion was to research something we were interested in. In the Sanctuary yesterday I walked past a research area, where conservation staff are trialling planting Rata epiphytes in different varities of native tree. I decided I would do some research into Rata, given that I know shamefully little about New Zealand botany.

Northern and Southern Rata belong to the Myrtle family. Other members of the Myrtle family include Eucalyptus, Feijoa, Clove and Guava. The Northern rata is an epiphyte. That means it grows perched on a host tree (commonly Rimu), which it eventually overwhelms. The Northern Rata grows up to 25 metres tall, with a trunk up to 2.5 metres thick. It is found all over the North Island, and in the South Island to Westport. The Southern Rata grows from seed, to about 15 metres.

Rata grow very slowly. They display beautiful red flowers from November to January, but may only flower every few years. Native bees, Tui, Bellbird and Kaka all feed off the trees' nectar. Rata honey is exceptionally sweet. Hamish and I tried some Golden Bay Rata honey last Christmas, but although I could see the attraction it was too strong for my taste.

Birds such as the Kaka rely on the tree for holes in which to nest. In the Sanctuary Rata are too small to provide suitable nesting sites for Kaka, so introduced Pine are being retained until such time as the Rata are mature enough to take over. As it is the Pines are reaching the end of their natural life, and each bit storm threatens to topple a few more.

Rata are endangered, primarily thanks to the introduced Possum. Before human settlement the only native New Zealand mammal was the bat. Native flora and fora stood no chance in the face of introduced pests. Possums browse heavily on Rata and can kill a mature tree in three years.

Early British settlers to Wellington hastened the Rata's decline by burning it from the young city's slopes, then planted fast growing Pohutukawa when the hillsides seemed too bare. Unfortunately Pohutukawa are a pest plant in the Wellington region, taking over space Rata would once have occupied, and hybridising with the local plant. However Rata can still be found in the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges, and keen local conservationists are tracking its survival in more urban areas.

Project Crimson is working with the Wellington Counsel to plant over 7,500 Rata on the Tinakori Hills over a five year period. A huge storm a couple of years ago felled hundreds of settler-planted Pine trees, and a large cleanup project left the hills again looking bare and scarred. Debate has raged here over the political correctness of planting only natives. It's true that the Rata will take a long time to replace the lost pines, but in one hundred years or so the approach to the city centre along the motorway will be spectacular. With a riot of red on one side and the harbour on the other. I only wish I could be there to see it.

In Maori mythology Rata sets out to avenge the death of his father at the hands of an ogre, Matuku. Matuku's servant advises Rata that the ogre comes out to eat people at each new moon, and can be killed at the pool where he washes his hair. Rata goes on to kill the ogre, and uses his bones to make spears for hunting birds.

Rata then searches for his father's bones. Before he can begin his quest he must build a canoe. He cuts off the top of a tree to begin carving the canoe, but when he wakes the next morning the tree is again whole. He cuts down the tree again, but in the morning the tree is again whole. This process continues, until one morning he hears the tree spirits, who tell him he has offended Tane, the God of the forest, by not performing the correct rituals. Rata is ashamed and apologises. As a result he is allowed to complete his canoe.

Rata then hunts down the people who have his father's bones. He kills their priests, and retrieves the bones. However the villagers chase him, and overwhelm him in battle. When everything seems lost he remembers the priests reciting an incantation as they tapped his father's bones together. He repeats the incantation, and immediately his dead warriors return and slaughter their attackers.

A rather bloody tale, but then Rata is also said to have given the tree that bears his name its red colour, so probably also appropriate. I'm glad now that a previous owner planted our hillside with natives, and that I resisted the temptation when we first moved here to transform it into a model of colonial cottage garden style. I'm going to go out and buy some more indigenous flora so that I can ditch the lawn!


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