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Understanding the whakapapa of our trees

When Nicholas Mayne gifted totara trees to the Te Hōnonga a Iwi Restoring Rosedale Park site, he was very aware of their heritage.

The seedlings, raised in a nursery on Nicholas’ property, had germinated from seeds collected in Fernhill Escarpment Reserve, a significant ecological area situated in the heart of Albany near Massey University and the Albany shopping centre.

“Those totara trees have been there for hundreds of years. I know they have good whakapapa, and we are planting them back into an area that has the same conditions,” says Nicholas, who founded the Upper Waitemata Ecology Network and is a long-time supporter of local restoration projects.

Seed whakapapa is a philosophy that’s followed by local iwi including Ngāti Whātua. Nicholas was taught the principles of the practice by Charmaine Bailie (Te Uri o Hau – Ngati Whatua ki Kaipara), an inspirational ecologist, ethnobotanist and an active community leader who was named Environmental Hero of the Year at the 2022 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year awards.

He advocates using the philosophy of seed whakapapa to get to know what you are planting. “Spend time observing the parents of the trees that you grow and plant, and try to understand what conditions the children with thrive in.”

Nicholas believes this is even more powerful than simply looking at eco-sourcing, which is collecting seeds close to where they are to be planted.

“Local genetic plant populations have adapted to local areas and local conditions. So sourcing seeds from the local ecological district means you are more likely to get plants that will grow better and you will not dilute the genetic diversity of your planting area.”

But the boundaries for ecological districts are arbitrary – the Rosedale restoration is part of the Tāmaki Ecological District which covers most of central Auckland. Just a few kilometres north, near Dairy Flat, is the boundary for the Rodney Ecological District.

Kereru don’t know they are dropping seeds on the wrong side of a line on a map, says Nicholas, so there may be more shared whakapapa between trees that come from different ecological districts but grow relatively nearby each other.

Another key element for success in restoration projects is ensuring your plants have genetic diversity, he says.

Native trees have lots of diversity. That means single plant species can occupy a wider ecological niche because they have been able to adapt for different conditions. It’s why one type of tree can, for example, survive in both wet and dry conditions.

Conversely, the plants we buy from garden centres or commercial nurseries may have been cultivated to display certain aesthetic properties, which means they have only a small amount of genetic diversity.

Genetic variety is even more important in the context of increasing climate change.

“Plants with a narrow genetic diversity don’t have the toolkit to grow in different conditions. The more genetic diversity a plant has, the better it can weather shock – and climate change is a pretty big shock.”

Nicholas has donated 350 plants to Te Hōnonga a Iwi, adding huge value to the restoration, says project co-ordinator Nicky Shave. He has given an additional 380 seedlings to Kristin School’s Year Two classes for the students to transplant into pots and raise.

“He is a plant expert and our very own local community taonga! We know when we receive seeds or plants from his home nursery, they have been collected with decades of experience behind the decisions he makes to harvest from certain areas and specimens.

“Nicholas has an encyclopedic knowledge of native plant varieties and their local history. We always get so much more than a handful of seeds gifted to us! The plants are more likely to survive and flourish as they are sourced within our own native corridor, and already well adapted to our unique environment.”

This is especially important given the restoration’s focus on mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration, Nicky says. “The planet needs natives that survive and grow well to reduce the effects of global warming. There’s no doubt that having experts like Nicholas as a valued member of the team pays dividends for generations to come. His willingness to teach our youth leaders and share resources is inspiring. He’s one of our favourite people!”

Nicholas and his family moved to Unsworth Heights about 17 years ago and once he had weeded his own property, he jumped the fence into Unsworth Reserve and kept weeding, kicking off a long history of involvement with local environmental projects.

He is still heavily involved with the Unsworth Reserve restoration project, which is now affiliated with Christian environmental organisation A Rocha.

His home nursery began when started pulling māpou seedlings out of the garden and repotting them. He then got permission to harvest seeds from the side of a track in a private reserve and the nursery took off from there.

Most of the plants he has raised in the nursery have either germinated from seeds he’s collected or come up in potting mix.

Nicholas has never counted the number of plants he gifted to local restoration projects but says it will be in the thousands. Most have gone to projects in the Upper Harbour area.

“Unless my mum raids the nursery. She’s a bit further away but you can’t say no to Mum.”

For Nicholas, working in the nursery is therapy. “My job involves dealing with people but plants are different. They don’t complain or yell at you. Working in the nursery provides that relaxation of doing something repetitive without giving it too much thought.”

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