Reminder of a far away isle

One of the many Chatham Island akeake trees scattered throughout the Andersons Bay Cemetery. Some...
One of the many Chatham Island akeake trees scattered throughout the Andersons Bay Cemetery. Some might think that these trees tend to look a bit gawky and unkempt, even at their best. Photo: Linda Robertson
Now and then someone says ‘‘from Cape Reinga to Bluff’’ or ‘‘from Kaitaia to Bluff’’, as if New Zealand ends at Bluff in the South. The 400 or so New Zealanders on Stewart Island/Rakiura would not be amused, writes Mark Clark.

Mark Clark
Mark Clark
But what about the 600 or so Kiwis living on the Chatham Islands? If it weren’t for Air Chathams and RNZ weather reports, how often would we remember they even exist?

These articles focus on charismatic local trees, and yes, there is an eccentric native tree from the Chatham Islands to remind us of those islands and the people who live there.

It’s surprisingly common in Dunedin and coastal Otago. The Chatham Island akeake or hakapiri (Olearia traversiorum formerly Olearia traversii) may be our largest native tree daisy, but its tiny flowers are even smaller than the little daisies on our lawns, so you could be forgiven for missing the family connection. There’s quite a few old ones in the Andersons Bay Cemetery, some beside Portsmouth Dr, and many more growing along the edges of Hancock Park near John Wilson Ocean Dr.

Now that pohutukawa are growing and flowering so successfully along our southern coasts, it’s fair to ask why such a gawky and ungainly tree as the Chatham Island akeake was planted so widely in the past. True, it survives blustery coastal weather and salt spray as well on the New Zealand mainland as it does on the Chathams.

All that rough living really shows though. Branches and twigs often poke out at awkward angles, and the edges of the fairly sparse leaves tend to curl downwards as if to protect themselves. There’s no pleasingly dense dome of foliage or spectacular floral display to see here. You can think of the tree either as a weatherbeaten coastguard that’s full of character, or a rather tattered, wizened veteran of a few too many storms - the ‘‘poor man’s pohutukawa’’ if you will.

Chatham Island akeake trees are prominent along the roadside boundaries of Hancock Park, near...
Chatham Island akeake trees are prominent along the roadside boundaries of Hancock Park, near John Wilson Drive, Dunedin - interestingly informal if you like them, rather scruffy if you don’t. Photo: Linda Robertson
Whatever we think of their aesthetic appeal, these gaunt exiles are living links to the Chatham Islands, which are called Rekohu (‘‘Misty sun’’) by Moriori and Wharekauri by Maori.

The islands lie about as far east of Christchurch as Dunedin is from Napier by air, and their total area is just over half that of Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Lt William Broughton named the islands after his ship, the HMS Chatham, in November 1791. Although they are usually cloudier and wetter than Dunedin, these islands are currently suffering from the same serious drought that is affecting the North Island and parts of the South Island.

Islands around the world often have unusually big or unusually small versions of plants and animals, like the Komodo dragon (big), the Galapagos tortoises (big), and the Sumatran rhinoceros (small). The Chatham Islands are no exception. Not only can they claim to have New Zealand’s tallest tree daisy (Olearia traversiorum - up to 18m), but also the tallest Hebe (Veronica barkeri formerly Hebe barkeri - up to 13m) and the tallest coprosma (Coprosma chathamica - up to 20m).

We use the name Chatham Island akeake because there’s another unrelated akeake (Dodonaea viscosa) in New Zealand. One meaning of akeake is ‘‘forever and ever’’, and it so happens that the wood from both of these akeake trees is very tough and durable. Perhaps Moriori on the Chatham Islands used their local akeake wood for useful implements in similar ways to Maori.

And where did the Moriori come from? Current research supports a migration of Maori settlers to the Chatham Islands from the New Zealand mainland about 500 years ago - about the same time the Spanish and Portuguese were beginning to explore and settle the Americas.

Moriori soon developed a distinctive culture and dialect in their new home. Among other things, they renounced war and violence as ways of solving problems. Unfortunately for them, Maori from the North Island who arrived in 1835 did not share their pacifism. They killed a few hundred Moriori and enslaved the rest.

Despite such grievous losses, there are several hundred people who claim Moriori ancestry living today. On February 14, some of them signed a Deed of Settlement at Kopinga Marae on Rekohu (Chatham Islands) - a major step towards the final settlement of all Moriori Treaty claims. The Chatham Island akeake trees growing around us are fitting symbols of the toughness and durability of the Moriori.

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