Hawksbeard: a Cheerful Weed

We’ve had recent, much-appreciated rain, and the grass is unusually green for January. But even with the grass growth, summer is weed season in the lawn.

More specifically, summer is weed flowering season.

Some of the weed flowers are uninspiring, and merely annoying—the dull greenish flowers of plantain, for example.

Others bring a splash of colour to what is normally a bleak time in the lawn.

Hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris) is one of the more prolific colourful weeds in the lawn in summer. An annual or biennial member of the dandelion family, this plant bears small, cheery yellow blooms on tall, branched stems.

The NZ Plant Conservation Network shows hawksbeard as being naturalised in 1867 from Europe. Like its cousin dandelion, it was most likely brought to New Zealand on purpose as a food plant—it’s young leaves are edible. Like the dandelion, it is no longer valued as a food, but is considered a weed.

I will admit, the tall flower heads of hawskbeard can be annoying in the lawn. They seem to spring up overnight between mowings, and they slap against your legs as you walk through the yard. But I do appreciate their yellow blooms at a time of year when most other plants give up from the heat and drought. I have been known to use hawksbeard in flower arrangements, and their green rosettes are sometimes the only green to be found around the yard.

Rolling out the Welcome Mat

When we first moved to our house, most of the landscaping, at our place and at the neighbour’s, was non-native. Gorse, photinia, oaks, birch, macrocarpa…plants of little interest to native wildlife. We’ve slowly been replacing much of the non-native vegetation with natives. When the property next door changed hands, the new owner replaced the gorse hedges with natives. Our plantings are all maturing, and I’ve got my fingers crossed we’ll soon attract some native residents.

Over the years, piwakawaka (fantails) have shown up occasionally, usually in autumn, and only for a week or so before moving on. But this year, one has arrived in summer. He’s been flitting around for over a week now, chattering and declaring ownership of the place. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping he’ll stay.

Piwakawaka don’t stay still for photos, but he was talking to me through the kitchen window yesterday and, with the window as a bird blind, I was able to snap a couple of photos that weren’t just a blur of feathers. He’s a cute wee guy. I hope our welcome mat is acceptable to him.

Volcanoes in the Mist

Our pre-Christmas family adventure this year took the form of a week on the North Island. One of the many things we did was to hike the Tongariro Crossing. The track climbs the slopes of Mt. Tongariro passes between Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe. The volcanoes are active–the last eruption was in 1975, and they have a history of erupting about every nine years before that–so the landscape near the top is stark and raw, with sulphurous steam rising from fissures and craters, tumbled rock, and dark lava flows.

The area is tapu, sacred, to the local Māori, and it’s no surprise. Power and violence are written on the landscape, the lush lower slopes of the mountain only accentuating the devastation near the top. The awesome forces that shape the face of the planet are on display there. It is a place for gods to live.

Unfortunately, it has also become an incredibly popular tourist destination. The day we hiked it, there was a constant stream of shuttle buses arriving at the start of the track. We spent the day hiking on others’ heels, with hikers on our own heels. When we stopped for lunch, we counted sixty-eight people pass us in just 15 minutes. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, and we estimated that there were 1600 people on the track at the time.

It seemed to me that most of the people were treating the excursion as nothing but a physical challenge–a race to be completed or 19.4 km to tick off their to-do list. A large group of twenty-somethings all but pushed us off the track in their effort to pass us as they chatted loudly to one another, oblivious to the beauty around them. A group of teens playing loud music sauntered past. A man sat beside a crater lake doing a business deal on his cell phone.

I wanted to stop, to soak in the alien landscape, to feel the immense power of lava beneath my feet, to examine the crusted sulphur on the rocks and the tenacious plant life that colonised the harsh landscape. But like sheep being herded onto a truck, we were pushed along the narrow track by the people behind us. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds was all we could snatch at a time to appreciate the landscape.

Like our favourite beach, the Tongariro Crossing has been diminished by its popularity. The gods are still there, in the steam and the lava, the raw craters blasted in the earth, but no one is paying attention.

Ruined by Popularity

Twelve years ago, we made the hair-raising drive out to Tumbledown Bay, on the recommendation of a colleague.

We fell in love. The remote bay with its sandy beach, kid-friendly waves, stunning scenery, and fabulous wildlife was exactly what we wanted in a beach. We began going there regularly.

For a few years, we could count on sharing the beach with, at most, half a dozen other people–that was on busy days. It was an intimate, private sort of experience, and those who found themselves together at Tumbledown Bay often struck up conversations (or, as we did on one of our very first visits, lasting friendships). It was a certain kind of person who went to Tumbledown, and everyone respected the desire for a crowd-free beach experience.

But word got about. Partly our fault–we praised the beach and encouraged our friends to visit it. Last week, when we arrived at Tumbledown Bay, there were already a dozen cars there, and more kept pouring in as the day wore on. The narrow footpath over the dunes had been replaced by a wide, driveable lane, and there was even a car on the beach. A rubbish bin overflowed at the end of the lane. Beach tents, boom boxes, people harassing the seals, dogs leaving ‘gifts’ along the waterline…it was no longer our Tumbledown Bay.

By any Northern Hemisphere standards, the beach was sparsely populated. But Tumbledown Bay isn’t equipped to handle crowds. It has no facilities, and the road to and from the bay is steep, narrow, and in poor shape. It’s not a road on which you want to meet oncoming traffic, but last weekend there was no way to avoid it.

It was possibly the last time we will visit Tumbledown Bay. A shame, really. It was a magical spot.

The Christmas Season

Twelve years ago, I was facing my first Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything felt wrong. I tried to carry on the traditions my husband and I had established in the States; I made truffles and cookies, I decorated with fresh greenery, we strung Christmas lights, we planned a big Christmas dinner, we played Christmas music.

The truffles melted, the greenery turned brown, the Christmas lights were invisible in the long summer evenings, the heavy dinner sat like lead on a hot summer day.

I longed for snow, and all the indoor family time of the northern holiday. I wanted long nights, candles and a roaring fire. I wanted hygge. But it was summer—time to be outdoors, on the beach, enjoying the sun.

Slowly our traditions have adapted to this southern holiday. I realised how far I’d come on Sunday morning. Slicing strawberries for breakfast, the smell of berries made it feel so Christmassy, I started humming carols. Then I laughed at the idea that strawberries equal Christmas.

I thought about all the things my kids have grown up associating with Christmas—long days at the beach, gardening, strawberries, cherries, making jam, making sauerkraut (which usually happens about Christmas eve every year), the ‘traditional’ Christmas salad, the first new potatoes, broad beans, backpacking.

We rarely play Christmas carols anymore (who wants to be indoors?). We bake fruit pies, and not many cookies. We use red carnations from the garden for Christmas decorations. Rather than being a time for focusing inward, Christmas is a time for adventuring—traveling, hiking, exploring.

And so, as we start into this Christmas season, I am looking forward to our travel plans. I’m looking forward to many days at the beach. I’m looking forward to the summer bounty from the garden. I’m looking forward to ice cream, roadside stands selling Otago cherries, outdoor dinners, and warm sun.

And that, I think, is the key of the season—to celebrate what is good about the here and now. To celebrate the bounty we’ve been given, whatever form it comes in—love, friendship, snow or strawberries. To be mindful. To be present in the moment.

Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!