History – Finding treasure on Tamahunga

 Pittosporum kirkii

This is a tale of two parts – the first is historical, the second is botanical. In September 1864, a group of Waikato Maori prisoners escaped from detention on Kawau Island and set up camp near the summit of Mt Tamahunga, west of Leigh. They remained there for a few months, long enough for the local settlers to become well used to their presence. The Meiklejohn family farmed at the base of Tamahunga (then known as Mt Hamilton) and on one occasion, John Meiklejohn guided botanist Thomas Kirk to the summit. The Maori were familiar with Meiklejohn, but became agitated on seeing Kirk as they thought he might be an army man. The two men had to mount a large tree stump to escape an attack with tomahawks. Things looked grim until the wife of a local chief intervened and calmed things down.

After this visit, Kirk wrote a paper, “On the botany and conchology of Great Omaha”.  Conchology refers to the study of shells. In the paper he wrote, “…on the summit of Mt Hamilton Pittosporum kirkii is epiphytic [i.e. grows on the surface of] the rata and other trees”. Pittosporum kirkii is a small tree with thick, leathery leaves with rounded tips and red stems. The flowers are yellow and the capsules large. The plant usually grows as an epiphyte, but occasionally it grows on the ground, mainly on rocky bluffs. It is found at higher altitudes, mostly more than 250 metres, but is not common. Indeed, it features in the threatened plant lists of both Northland and Auckland. Kirk first found this plant on Great Barrier Island, where he named it “Pittosporum n.s. (new species), but by the time of his visit to Tamahunga it had been given his name.

Reading this record excited my curiosity as I had been searching for this plant in lower Northland for many years. I had presumed that there was no territory of sufficient altitude for it to grow or that possums had eliminated it. A few years ago, I was invited to join a small party who were visiting Tamahunga to monitor predator traps, and I carefully checked each of the large rata trees that we passed as we climbed up one ridge and down another. On the largest of these trees was a thick collar of Astelia, and growing out of this was a double-trunked shrub of Pittosporum kirkii. It grew too high up the tree for me to collect a specimen but on searching the ground beneath, a small twig with four leaves and a large capsule was found. This was lodged in the herbarium of the Auckland Museum as a record of this exciting find, unrecorded in nearly 150 years since Kirk’s visit.

Maureen Young www.warkworthmuseum.co.nz

History - Warkworth & District Museum