Council takes restoration planting to new heights

27 July 2015

At this time of year – in the chill, dead of winter – most of us are huddled around heaters indoors. Not our Parks, Sport and Recreation staff, however; they’re out and about, planting tens of thousands of native seedlings on the Town Belt and in reserves around the city.

Council staff are climbing trees to plant epiphytes.

Arborist Warren Smith gives an epiphyte a lift to its new home in Huntleigh Park.

Winter is, of course, the best time to get plants in the ground so they can become established and have the best chance of survival in the hotter, drier months.

This year, Parks staff are branching out into a new and exciting pioneering type of planting. In Huntleigh Park, between Ngaio and Crofton Downs, they’re climbing trees to plant epiphytes.

An epiphyte is a plant that grows harmlessly upon another plant (such as a tree) and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. Epiphytes differ from parasites in that they grow on other plants for physical support and do not necessarily affect the host negatively. Epiphytes include mosses, ferns, and orchids. They provide a rich and diverse habitat for other organisms including animals, fungi, and bacteria.

Anita Benbrook, a technical adviser in the Council’s Urban Ecology team, is leading the epiphyte trial. If it’s successful, she says, epiphytes could be reintroduced into the city’s stands of native bush. “Epiphytes are an integral feature of New Zealand’s bush and, in fact, any forest or jungle in tropical or temperate regions around the world,” says Anita. “The presence of epiphytes is a very good indicator that the bush is in a healthy state.”

Staff have been climbing into the larger trees in the reserve, up to 10 metres off the ground, to plant the epiphytes in the crooks of the main branches. The plant species chosen – and grown at the Council’s nursery in Berhampore and at Otari-Wilton’s Bush – include kahakaha (Collospermum hastatum) and the locally rare tawhirikaro (Pittosporum cornifolium).

Anita says Huntleigh Park has been chosen for the trial because it is one of the largest stands of remnant bush in the city that still has a few remaining clumps of kahakaha. Importantly, much of the bush is on south-facing slopes. “That means the bush isn’t hit hard by the sun and will therefore be moist, which provides perfect conditions for epiphytes. We needed to locate some existing clumps of kahakaha to plant the tawhirikaro into.”

Fully-grown epiphytes provide great habitat, water, food, and shelter for birds, geckos, insects, spiders, and other creatures of the bush. “Huntleigh Park is in a reasonable state of health – and it’s attracting a good number of birds, thanks to pest control programmes and its proximity to Zealandia and Otari-Wilton’s Bush,” says Anita. “If this trial succeeds then we’ll be on the way to returning this bush – and others – to a genuinely lush and thriving state.”