As lovely as a gum

The beautiful Albany red gum in the car park of the CCA Dunedin Branch Office at 29 Portobello Rd, between Portsmouth Dr and Andersons Bay Rd. Photos: Gerard O'Brien
The beautiful Albany red gum in the car park of the CCA Dunedin Branch Office at 29 Portobello Rd, between Portsmouth Dr and Andersons Bay Rd. Photos: Gerard O'Brien

There are some lovely specimens of Albany red gums in Dunedin, writes Mark Clark.

Mark Clark
Mark Clark

''Albany'' is a charming old name for Scotland, coming from the Scottish Gaelic ''Alba'' and the Medieval Latin ''Albania''. In the US, Albany is the capital city of New York State, even though its population of 100,000 is tiny compared to New York City.

In Dunedin, we have an Albany St - well known for fronting the Otago Museum reserve and the University of Otago's Central Library. My interest in trees began while I was flatting at 136 Albany St with students for a few years in the late 1970s.

Albany is also a town of about 33,000 people on the south coast of Western Australia. It's a bit further south from Perth than Dunedin is from Christchurch, and near the area where 84-year-old New Zealand woman Patricia Byrne recently survived being lost in the bush for three days.

Like Dunedin, this Albany has a beautiful natural harbour visited by cruise ships, and a strong connection to gold rushes of the 1800s, when it was the gateway to the Western Australian goldfields. It was actually founded (as Frederick Town) a couple of years before Perth and Fremantle.

Albany red gum makes a fine street tree, as this specimen on the berm outside 81 Norfolk St shows.
Albany red gum makes a fine street tree, as this specimen on the berm outside 81 Norfolk St shows.
A fairly short stretch of coast to the west of Albany is famous among tree lovers as the natural home of the magnificent red-flowering gum or Albany red gum (Corymbia ficifolia previously Eucalyptus ficifolia). Although it's perplexingly rare in nature, it has become famous throughout the world for its brilliant displays of red, orange, pink or white flowers.

I'm pleased to say that we have some lovely specimens in Dunedin. The one I see most often grows by the car park of the CCA Dunedin Branch Office at 29 Portobello Rd. You can see other fine examples from the street at 86 Easther Cres and 149 Victoria Rd. Albany red gums make good street trees too. There's a beautiful one growing on the berm outside 81 Norfolk St.

They don't have sickle-shaped leaves or long lean limbs like most gum trees. Ferdinand von Mueller thought that their leaves looked a bit like the leaves of some of the 42 or so species of native Australian fig trees - hence the botanical name ficifolia or ''leaves like a fig''. They certainly don't look much like the leaves of the common edible fig Ficus carica which is growing in a few local gardens.

In late summer, it's tempting to think that spectacular displays of red flowers are well and truly over for the year. The spring rhododendrons and midsummer pohutukawa and rata have usually done their dash. For us in the far south though, summer's final hurrah in red is the show put on by our local Albany red gums. They flower later here than in Australia because of our cooler spring and summer weather.

You could say that Albany red gums are the closest thing Australia has to our beloved pohutukawa and rata trees. Not surprisingly, all of these plants are in the Myrtaceae or myrtle family, along with 800 or so other ''gum'' trees, bottlebrushes, paperbarks, guavas, feijoas, and the new wunderkind of alternative medicine, New Zealand manuka.

Sadly, a villain from South America is now stalking local members of this happy family. The dreaded myrtle rust (Austropuccinia psidii) arrived recently via Australia and is well established in the North Island and the upper South Island. Long may it stay away from Otago and Southland.

If you're ever in central Hamilton with a few minutes to spare, check out the impressive street tree outside 2 Princes St. And don't tell the Aussies that it's probably the largest known single-stemmed Albany red gum in the world. When it was in its prime a few decades ago, S.W. Burstall and E.V. Sale ranked it as No24 in their list of 100 Great Trees of New Zealand. I reckon that a couple of the local Albany red gums will be giving it a run for its money over the next few decades.

 

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