Lemonwoods on our streets

This healthy lemonwood tree grows in a footpath beside the entrance to the University of Otago on...
This healthy lemonwood tree grows in a footpath beside the entrance to the University of Otago on Cumberland St. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Fair of bark and light of leaf, the lemonwood is the blonde of the bush, writes Mark Clark. 

Mark Clark
Mark Clark
As you head south on the Cumberland St section of State Highway 1, there's an official entrance to the University of Otago Te Whare Wananga o Otago on your left just past the North Ground. Well it looks like an official entrance anyway, because an impressive monolith with the university's name and a visitors' centre stand nearby. Most of us carry on towards central Dunedin without even glancing sideways.

We all know how important "image" is to organisations these days, so what trees have the university landscapers chosen to welcome people to that fine New Zealand institution? An interesting selection of native trees lines the highway on each side of the entrance (thanks partly to the Landcare Research/GNS Science site), then northern hemisphere exotics take over as you enter the campus proper.

Holding a prominent position in the footpath beside the entrance though, is a common local native tree. It's a lemonwood or tarata (Pittosporum eugenioides) - one of the few native trees used as street trees in Dunedin.

I've often wondered why there aren't more native trees at street level in the central city. But in fact, there are young lemonwood trees where lots of tourists get to see them. City workers who scrounge for free parking spots on the other side of the railway lines walk past them every time they use the railway station footbridge. In a wee native bush plot beside the harbour end of the footbridge, the lemonwoods eke out a living with some kohuhu, five finger, broadleafs and cabbage trees. The kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium) are close cousins to lemonwoods, but they have smaller leaves without yellowy fringes. It's a good place to see the two species side by side. I reckon a panel on the bridge above this plot would be appreciated by tourists who wonder what they're looking at.

Here's a street lemonwood that has plenty of room to spread as it grows. It's in a bus turning...
Here's a street lemonwood that has plenty of room to spread as it grows. It's in a bus turning roundabout in Signal Hill Rd.
Lemonwoods need plenty of elbow room to look their best - like the tree in a bus turning roundabout on Signal Hill Rd. Kudos to the Dunedin City Council for using a native tree as a centrepiece here. Lemonwoods grow too large for many small suburban gardens, but they could be used a lot more around the edges of parks and on grassy roadside verges.

Unfortunately, these trees tend to suffer from "white suit syndrome". Mould and other primeval-soupy stuff sticks to the whitish bark all too easily and makes it look rather grubby - a no-no for "civilized" urban trees in the West.

Another less endearing habit of lemonwoods is to drop sticky seeds (Pittosporum means "pitch seed" or "tarry seed"). The seeds and hard seed cases often get caught in shoe soles, so it's best to keep the trees away from busy footpaths.

Outside settled areas, lemonwoods are the blondes of the bush, with their crimped, yellow-green tresses and pale skin. They're still fairly common in the remaining patches of native woody plants in coastal Otago. Strangely though, they never made it across Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island/Rakiura without human help, despite having seeds that could stick to birds' feet.

Taking a closer look, it's bizarre to see short, purplish-black twigs joining the fresh, new wavy "blonde" leaves to the pale bark. Wherever that dark colour comes from, it soon fades to grey, an unexpected white, then pale grey again as the twigs become big branches.

But there's more about lemonwood to enjoy in spring. The bunches of pretty yellow flowers shed a rich, honey-sweet fragrance that I adore - though some might find it cloying. Few other local native plants engage the nose as well as the eyes in this way. And when they're young, lemonwoods grow lots of leaves in a pleasingly-plump, densely-packed cone, unlike the rather scrawny and twiggy youths of some other native tree species. With age and maturity, the cone morphs into an attractive green dome.

With its leaves that smell (faintly rather than strongly, as far as I'm concerned) lemony when crushed, and its yellowish and whitish hues, lemonwood has one of the more well-chosen English names for a native plant. Maori used the sap as a scent and made body lotion by mixing the flowers and gummy resin with bird fat. They also formed a kind of chewing gum by mixing lemonwood sap with puwha sap. Once again, I see an opportunity for a local entrepreneur to make some unique, locally-sourced products with an indigenous CV.

 - Mark Clark 

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