The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…

A Bird in the Hand

I’ve had two funny encounters with birds recently. Two birds in-the-hand, so to speak.

A few weeks ago I was in town, doing some writing in Hagley Park, because it was a beautiful spring day. I sat down on the grass with my lunch and my laptop.

A few minutes later, I noticed a male European blackbird eyeing me up. He hopped closer, stopping when I met his gaze, but then, deciding I was no threat, sidling even closer. My lunchbox sat open between us, and I knew he was sizing it up.

Well, I don’t feed wildlife in general, and I certainly wasn’t going to feed a non-native invasive bird. Besides, I wanted to eat that lunch myself. I finished off my sandwich and started in on my apple.

The bird watched my every move. When I set the apple into the lunchbox to type, he rushed in. I clapped my hand over the box, and he backed off.

The bird was undeterred. When I brought the apple to my mouth again, he lunged for it. He flew up and took a bite out of it while I was biting the other side. His wingtips brushed my cheeks, he was so close.

Well, how could I refuse after that? I gave him the rest of the apple (which wasn’t much more than core at that point, anyway). 

But I made him work for it.

I put it back in the lunchbox, and set the box next to my leg. And that cheeky bird perched on the lunchbox and ate the rest of the apple. Other birds came to see what he had, but none were brave enough to come close, so he had it all to himself. He was terribly smug about it—quite pleased with himself, I’m sure.

My second recent bird encounter happened last weekend. My husband was mowing the lawn, and there was a fledgling magpie in the way. The magpie wouldn’t move out of the mower’s path, so I tried to shoo it away. It still wouldn’t budge, just cheeped at me, as if to say, “Yeah. What do you want?”

So I gently picked it up to pop it over the fence, out of the way. It gave one alarmed squawk, and suddenly its parents were arrowing straight for me from where they had been feeding in the neighbouring paddock. They swooped and screeched as I walked away, and I had to wave my arms over my head to avoid being pecked. The fledgeling, meanwhile, hopped away as though nothing had happened. I could almost hear him chuckling.

So, yeah, I’ve been had by two birds recently. A human in the beak is worth two in the bush, apparently.

Awesome Alpine Plants

Whipcord hebe flowering in the snow

My daughter and I went for a hike on Saturday after being cooped up in the house all day Friday by a rip-roaring southerly storm. The storm lashed us with rain and hail, but in the mountains, it brought snow. Saturday morning, the beech forest at Cragieburn Forest Park was a winter wonderland.

Climbing up out of the forest into the alpine areas, the intensity of the storm was clear—thigh-deep drifts filled the path in some places, while other areas had been blown clear down to the scree. Every tussock had a long train of sculpted snow on its leeward side, so you could almost feel the howling wind and the sting of blowing snow, in spite of it being a clear calm day.

Nestled among the rocks, we found this lovely whipcord hebe, flowering in spite of its slowly melting blanket of snow. And there were other plants peeking out of the snow, clinging to the scree.

Alpine plants are some of the toughest organisms around. They have to cope with intense sun, wide temperature fluctuations, drought, wind, and ice and snow. They have evolved a variety of adaptations in order to combat these dangers.

Short, cushion-shaped growth: A tight ball of branches and leaves resists damage and drying from fierce wind. The pinnacle of this growth form has to be plants in the genus Raoulia. Known as ‘vegetable sheep’, they form hard, tight masses of tightly packed leaves (akin to the texture of a head of cauliflower). Inside the mound, dead plant material builds up around the branches and acts like a sponge, soaking up rain when it’s available. Adventitious roots on the plant’s branches tap into this reservoir of water when the weather is dry.

Long roots: Unstable rocks and shifting scree make it difficult for alpine plants to stay put, and water is often far below the surface. To cope, they have long roots that anchor them deep into the rock. Some are also able to regrow from their roots if the top of the plant is snapped of by rockfall.

Drought-resistant leaves: Many alpine plants have leaves that are fuzzy on the underside, where the stomates (the breathing holes) are located. The hairs trap a layer of calm air against the leaf surface, slowing down water loss from the stomata. Other plants have narrow, vertically-oriented leaves that minimise exposure to the intense alpine sunshine, reducing evaporation.

Sunscreen: A waxy coating on many alpine plant leaves protects against intense sunlight and high temperatures.

Antifreeze: Ice crystals forming inside a living cell break the cell walls and kill it, so organisms living in cold environments have to somehow avoid freezing. Alpine plants protect themselves from freezing by manufacturing antifreeze from proteins in their tissues. The antifreeze prevents ice crystals from forming in the plant’s cells.

Energy conservation: The growing season in alpine areas is short, and nutrients are scarce. Many alpine plants respond by not reproducing every year. Instead of producing low-quality seeds that may not survive, they hoard resources until they have accumulated enough to reproduce successfully.

All these adaptations give most alpine plants a similar look—low, mounded, small-leaved and tough. But one plant in particular stands out as oddly showy and out of place.

Mount Cook buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii)

The Mount Cook buttercup (aka Mount Cook lily), is an unusual alpine plant, in that it has big leaves and large, showy flowers. But even so, it is well-adapted to the alpine environment. Most plants have stomates on the underside of their leaves, because the underside is generally shaded and cooler, leading to less water loss. But in the alpine environment, sun-warmed rocks radiate heat, making the underside of the leaves warmer than the upper side on sunny days. The Mount Cook buttercup and its relatives have evolved stomates on the upper side of the leaves, in addition to the ones on the underside. The stomates on the top open when the underside of the leaf grows too warm.

Kaitorete Spit: An Overlooked Gem

Earlier this week, my daughter and I hiked onto the Banks Peninsula from Birdlings Flat. The walk afforded us gorgeous views of Kaitorete Spit.

Kaitorete Spit is only about 6000 years old, but is an important natural and cultural resource. Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere, formed by the spit, is home to or visited by 166 species of birds and 43 species of fish which support commercial fisheries, recreational fishing and hunting, and traditional food gathering. In spite of its harsh, exposed environment, Kaitorete Spit is home to a remarkable number of threatened plants and animals, including pīngao (a native sand sedge prized for weaving), a flightless moth, and the katipo spider. A variety of lizards also flourish on the spit. The lake and spit have been important sources of food and fibre for Māori since they arrived in the area. Fragments of the oldest known Māori cloak were uncovered on the spit, dating to around 1500 AD, and many other signs of early Maori use of the spit have also been found there.

In pre-European times, Māori used the spit as a convenient highway as they travelled up and down the island. Unfortunately, the shifting gravel of the spit and the regular opening of the lake to the sea mean the spit isn’t passable in anything but the most capable of four-wheel drive vehicles. Today, travellers make the long trek all around the lake, so our home near the pointy end of the spit is a 40-minute drive from Birdlings Flat, just 25 km away on the fat end of the spit. But I’m happy to leave the spit to foot traffic—it helps protect the unique plants and animals that live there.

On a windy, wet day, Kaitorete Spit is a miserable, exposed place to be, but visit it on a warm sunny day, and you’ll see why it is an overlooked gem.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.

Sticky Feet! The Eucalyptus Tortoise Beetle

Hanging up the laundry this morning, I found this lovely beetle making its way along the washing line. It’s a eucalyptus tortoise beetle (Paropsis charybdis). I see them occasionally, but with only one eucalyptus tree in the yard, they’re not common.

I’m quite fond of tortoise beetles. This one isn’t much to look at, but many species are sparkling gold, and my first glimpse of them, as a kid, was a truly magical experience that I’ve never forgotten. What tortoise beetles have in common is their domed tortoise-like shape.

Their shape, combined with some pretty awesome feet is what keeps them safe.

Tortoise beetles have wide pads on their feet (this one obligingly sat on a clear surface and showed its feet under the microscope). The pads are covered densely in short hairs, like the bristles of a toothbrush. Each hair is moistened by oil, which helps it stick to the waxy surfaces of leaves in the same way two wet drinking glasses stick together if they’re nested. The oil bonds to both surfaces and acts as glue. When disturbed, the tortoise beetle presses its feet against the surface, employing as many as 60,000 sticky bristles (about 10 times more than other beetles have) to keep it attached. These sticky feet, combined with the dome-like shape make it difficult for predators to dislodge the beetle.

Entomologist Tom Eisner performed a series of elegant experiments with the palmetto tortoise beetle, attaching weights to the beetles to see how much force they could withstand before being pulled off a leaf. He found they could hold up to 240 times their body mass. Those are some seriously sticky feet!

So if their feet are so sticky, how do they walk? Eisner showed, by looking at palmetto beetle footprints on glass, that when they walk, they don’t let all the bristles on their feet touch the surface. Their full adhesive power is only deployed for defence.

I don’t think anyone has tested eucalyptus tortoise beetle grip strength, but it’s definitely impressive. I popped this one into a narrow jar, and it never hit the bottom—it reached out with one leg, like some movie superhero, and grabbed the smooth wall of the jar, arresting its fall. Then, when I tried to get it out of the jar, it stuck like glue to the side. I had to slide a stiff piece of paper under its feet, prying them up one by one. It was obliging for the photo shoot, but when I tried to let it go, it stuck itself to the paper. It took a few determined nudges, but eventually I got it to the edge of the paper and it dropped off.

The eucalyptus tortoise beetle is not native to New Zealand, and is considered a pest in the forest industry here. Still, I have to admire the beetles’ sheer tenacity, and am willing to share my eucalyptus tree with them for the opportunity to see those sticky feet in action.