Eminent and ever-busy New Zealand botanist Sir Alan Mark
has completed a definitive guide to our alpine environment,
the result of a passion for plants and wild places that has
spanned more than half a century. Shane Gilchrist
In order to outline a fundamental function of Sir Alan Mark's
latest project, Above the Treeline: A Nature Guide to
Alpine New Zealand, it's not entirely off-topic to
discuss the pages of another book.
The Reader's Digest Family Encyclopedia of Animals
makes a salient point in its foreword: that such tomes are
likely to be revised for two reasons, one admirable, the
other sad. On one hand, new discoveries of species would
bolster pages; on the other, certain types might no longer
exist come any updating of the publication.
Knighted in 2009 for his conservation work, Sir Alan agrees
the same considerations apply to Above the Treeline,
which could be regarded as the fourth revision of a series he
started in 1973 with botanical artist Nancy Adams (others
being published in 1986 and 1995).
Approached by Nelson-based Craig Potton Publishing, the
80-year-old emeritus professor of botany at the University of
Otago, admits the book required more work than he had
''Our plant taxonomists have been busy and there has been a
lot of molecular work done since the last book. There has
been a hell of a lot of literature since 1995 so it was a
major task to catch up on that.''
Above the Treeline, the first comprehensive field guide to
New Zealand's alpine environment, describes and illustrates
more than 850 species of flora and fauna and includes more
than 1000 photographs in its almost 500 pages.
The flora sections cover conifers, flowering plants, mosses,
ferns, lichens and fungi; and the sections on fauna are
supplied by Rod Morris (birds), Mandy Tocher (lizards) and
Brian Patrick (invertebrates).
''I know publishers are always keen for sales and there are a
lot of books around that are the `100 most common ... ' and
so on. But, to me, there is nothing more frustrating than
taking such a book into the field. You don't know if your
particular interest is going to be covered or not,'' Sir Alan
''The publishers were keen to make it comprehensive. I must
say, I got a lot of support from botanical colleagues and
people in government departments, including Landcare Research
and the Department of Conservation. They saw my drafts and
would comment, `you haven't got this or that', and would tell
me where they had found plants.''
Another key source was the New Zealand Plant Conservation
Network. Established in 2003 with the vision that ''the rich,
diverse and unique plant life of New Zealand will be
recognised, cherished and restored'', the network's research
includes an in-depth website.
''That was basically my bible, and I recognise the effort
those people have made to keep New Zealand plant literature
right up to the minute.''
Though Sir Alan is a former president of the Royal Forest and
Bird Society (1986-1990), a fellow of the Royal Society of
New Zealand and recipient of that organisation's Hutton Medal
in 1997 and its Charles Fleming Environmental Award in 2010,
he steers clear of opinion within the pages of Above the
Treeline. Yet the book does contain a message between the
lines. The celebration of what lives in our wild alpine
places comes with an unspoken caution about what we stand to
''I hope the book will add to the appreciation of what we
have and also further efforts to ensure we retain them for
their biodiversity value, their genetic value. We have a
responsibility to the world at large to protect our unique
biota for future generations,'' Sir Alan says.
''It's a shame that we have to defend against some
high-impact development on conservation land, areas that have
high diversity and threatened species.
''I've been in conservation long enough to realise it is
about reducing the rate of loss; there is little to be
gained. So hopefully, the book will add to the appreciation
of what we have to cherish and encourage people to fight for
According to the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network,
75.4% of New Zealand's alpine vascular* plants are considered
''not threatened''. Read another way, that means a quarter
are.(*Vascular plants have a system of ''tubes'' that connect
all parts of the plant, roots, shoots and leaves, to
transport water and nutrients from one part of the plant to
another.)''I think our alpine plants aren't perhaps as
threatened as our lowland forest plants, but there has been a
fair bit of habitat modification and depletion in the South
Island high country. The threat status of our plants and
animals is high in international standards.
''Bear in mind, they don't occur anywhere else. And it is
also very hard to retain those plants in anything other than
their natural habitat.''
Ouralpine plants are special for a number of reasons.
New Zealand has a greater range of alpine vegetation than
occurs in most other parts of the world. More than 700
species of flora - a third of the total number of New
Zealand's plant life - exist in alpine conditions, yet
mountain ranges comprise just 10% of the country's total land
area. And of those 700-odd species, 93% are endemic to the
New Zealand Biological Region (which extends to the
That level of endemism hints at a long history of alpine
evolution. But, in fact, the mountain habitat of New Zealand
is, by geological standards, very recent, Sir Alan notes.
''It only goes back five million years which, in evolutionary
terms, is only yesterday.
''The extremes in temperature, short summers and high rates
of erosion all help make New Zealand's alpine environment
challenging, not only for the humans who explore it but also
for the plants and animals that inhabit it.
''There have been a whole range of adaptations to fill all
those various habitats or niches. Plants have evolved in
''For example, our alpine lichens have made three remarkable
adaptations: they can become metabolically dormant when the
environment dries out; they can photosynthesise at
temperatures as low as minus 20degC; and they can colonise
nutrient-poor substrata because they obtain their nutrients
from the air, rain and snow.''
Other ''remarkable'' plants he lists include the largest
buttercup in the world, Ranunculus lyallii, otherwise known
as the Mt Cook Buttercup. As with many of New Zealand's
alpine flowers, it offers a limited palette.
''A lot of people find it disappointing that our alpine
plants don't have interesting flowers - they are mostly white
''Some plants [such as the button daisy, Leptinella atrata
and its subspecies] do have colour. But often there is no
evolutionary advantage to them having colour.
''It seems it is the insects that have let us down. A bit
like our plants, insects have been isolated for so long that
they are not very specialised. So they bumble about in
flowers in which pollination often occurs at night-time.''
Though he readily acknowledges many people aren't interested
in grasses, Sir Alan has a fondness for tussocks. It's hardly
surprising given he is an expert in upland grassland
''They have an ability to conserve water. They have an
adaptation in their fine, wispy foliage to minimise loss.
That same foliage is very well-suited to extract water out of
''We have shown through experiments on Mount Cargill that a
tussock, sitting on its own, can capture half a litre of
water an hour when we can't measure any rain; it just strips
it from the fog. It thus provides water downstream for
whatever use is required, be it conservation, recreation or
Officially, Sir Alan retired in 1998. Yet he admits he hasn't
slowed down too much. Not required to do university lectures,
he's able to set his ''own priorities''.
''I've been able to indulge my conservation interests. I've
had two Environment Court cases and one Environment
Canterbury case recently.
''I've been involved in the Nevis Valley case in which
Pioneer Energy has submitted to flood part of the Nevis
Valley. I think we made the case the valley was an
outstanding landscape with outstanding values,'' he says,
referring to the unanimous decision last year by parties to
agree to the entire Nevis Valley being reclassified from a
special natural landscape to outstanding natural landscape.
(A decision from the Environment Court is still pending on
another Nevis Valley case - whether the water conservation
order on the Nevis River should be amended.)
''Recently, I've been involved with the Environment Court in
the case regarding the Denniston Plateau, which is of high
conservation value: it has very high biodiversity in lizards,
invertebrates and plants. It's conservation land but we now
have to defend it against open-cast coal mining.
''I was asked to look at the international significance of
the Denniston Plateau so I took in world heritage values and
international wetland values.''
(The four-week Environment Court case finished late last
year, and a decision is expected shortly.)''Then I had a case
with Environment Canterbury which involved taking a look at
Lake Sumner, which is the only unmodified lake in Canterbury
and one of the few left in the South Island. A two-metre dam
was proposed ... but by the time the case was to be heard,
the proponents didn't front up.''
Closer to home, the man who has dedicated his academic career
to the study of plants, ecosystems and associated issues,
does actually find time to spend in his own Dunedin garden.
''I have a small native forest patch and a small alpine
''I enjoy the outdoors. I took a group of people to the top
of the Old Man Range in Central Otago this week. I've been
keen to leave a bit of a legacy behind and put some signage
up there explaining various aspects to visitors.
''There is a bit going on, but life is too short to hang your
• Knighted in 2009 for his conservation work, Sir
Alan Mark is emeritus professor of botany at the University
• Born in Dunedin.
• Became professor of botany at Otago in
• Past member NZ National Parks and Reserves
• Past member NZ Conservation Authority.
Fiordland Marine Guardian.
• Involved in Hellaby Indigenous Grasslands
Research Trust: first research fellow, then research adviser,
and, until 2009, was chairman of its board of
• Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Life member and former president of Forest and Bird
• Member of Ecological Society.
• CBE for contributions to conservation; made a
Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.
Above the Treeline: A Nature Guide to Alpine New
Zealand, by Alan F. Mark, is published by Craig Potton