Pimelea aridula in flower. Anna Yeoman
These golden grasslands are as false as a plastic nugget, a consequence of human modification over the last 800 years.
A tangle of native dryland vegetation at Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary.
Photo: Anna Yeoman
Take a walk in the real Central Otago
Central Otago and gold are tied together in our national psyche. It was the search for the mineral that sent the first Europeans into this wild interior. Years later, now that tourism is the new money earner, it’s the images of Otago’s golden tussocklands that are sold.
There is certainly something alluring, even mesmerising, about the limitless folds of gold under the stretched blue sky. Poets and landscape artists have deepened our connection. So it’s a shock, and sometimes a rude one, to learn that these grasslands are as false as a plastic nugget, a consequence of human modification over the last 800 years.
Before human arrival, the interior of Otago was richly clothed in woody plant species. Only on the schist-studded tops of the broad ranges was the iconic snow tussock (Chionochloa) found. Even here, the original plant communities were more diverse than today, with a greater proportion of shrubs and herbs.
Spaniard. Anna Yeoman
Before human arrival, the interior of Otago was richly clothed in woody plant species.
Imagine for a moment, taking a walk here a thousand years ago, down from the tops of one of the broad mountain ranges on a summer’s day. As we begin to descend we brush through tussocks and knee-high shrubs, Dracophyllum, Pimelea, a low Coprosma. As we drop below 1300 metres the going gets tougher as we enter a band of mountain toatoa and snow totara, the odd patch of bog pine. Around 1000 metres above sea level we reach what feels like the bushline proper and find ourselves under a canopy of beech and Hall’s totara. Despite the dry climate of the region, here on the upper mountain slopes the temperatures are cooler and the air more moist than in the valley below. In the wettest and most sheltered gullies we see clusters of podocarps: rimu, kahikatea and matai.
As we continue down through the forest, the beech canopy begins to change to a more open woodland. The air feels warmer and the Hall’s totara starts to dominate, along with kowhai, kanuka and manuka. In places the going gets difficult, the canopy strung with Clematis and Muehlenbeckia vines. All around us is birdsong. As we push through a patch of small-leaved shrubs, the fragrance of Olearia odorata gives some compensation for the spiny matagouri that scratches at our forearms.
Kanuka. Anna Yeoman
Coprosma propinqua. Anna Yeoman
We’re almost at the valley floor now, and there’s a dry baked feeling to the air. We come out on a small north-facing knoll, where short tussocks and the porcupine plant Melicytus fringe gently-sloping slabs of schist. A skink disappears into the vegetation.
We sit on the warm lichen-covered slabs, enjoying what breeze the summer day provides, and look out over the gently rolling land. A mosaic of woodland, shrubland and grassland covers the basin floor. The winding lines of denser woodland indicate the courses of streams. Cabbage trees poke up their jaunty heads from among the kowhai and kanuka. Around the schist outcrops are clusters of Corokia and Coprosma. In the driest spots are open clearings, where the white flowered Pimelea aridula joins short tussock and low cushions of Raoulia. Everywhere the vegetation is diverse, shimmering in rich tones of greens, golds and greys and alive with the hum, scuttle and trill of its animal life. This was the original, living wealth of Central Otago.
Everywhere the vegetation is diverse, shimmering in rich tones of greens, golds and greys and alive with the hum, scuttle and trill of its animal life.
Scientific name: Aciphylla colensoi. Individual plants may be up to 90 cm in diameter and half as high, and consist of sharp spines, all pointing out from the centre. Small, yellowish flowers are produced in dense clusters along strong stems up to a metre or so tall. Long, narrow spines project out from amongst the flowers.
Scientific name: Sophora microphylla. Maori name: Kowhai. An evergreen shrub or small tree, grows to 8 metres tall. Leaves 30-50mm long. In spring it produces bunches of drooping yellow flowers, followed by dry ridged and knobbly seed pods 50-200mm long containing hard yellow seeds. The young plants have zig-zagging branches. An important food for native birds. Photo: Bernard Spragg. Public domain.
Scientific name: Fuscospora cliffortioides. Common forest canopy tree in drier upland areas. Can grow to 20 m tall, but at altitude near the bushline will form a low forest 2 m tall. Small leathery leaves 10-15mm long, arranged along twigs, pale underneath with incurved margins. Flowers and fruits inconspicuous. Photo: Katja Schulz. cc-by-2.0
Scientific name: Pimelea aridula. Bushy small shrub with pairs of greyish hairy pointed leaves. Inhabits very dry rocky sites in Central Otago. Twigs hairy. Leaves 8-12mm long by 2-3mm wide. Flowers white with a hairy pinkish body, in clusters. Fruit dry, enclosing black seed. Conservation status: At risk, declining. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Gaultheria antipoda. Common names: Snowberry, fool's beech, false beech, bush snowberry. Maori names: Tawiniwini, takapo, taupuku. A lowland and montane ever-green shrub that grows to 1 - 2 m tall. It has leathery, shiny leaves with serrated edges. In November it has small white bell-shaped flowers, followed by 10 mm white, pinkish, red berries. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Olearia odorata. Common name: Scented tree daisy. Bushy shrub with pale narrow oval leaves that are white underneath, 10-22mm long by 4-6mm wide. Inhabits open areas east of the Main Divide. Grows 2 - 4 m tall. Flowers small and white. Seeds fluffy. An important plant for native insects, especially moths. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Cordyline australis. Maori name: Ti kouka. Straight trunk branching into tufts of long narrow pointed leaves. In summer large clusters of small, white, sweet-scented flowers emerge from the centre of the heads. Good flowering seasons only occur every few years. Small, whitish berries are formed which are readily eaten by birds. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Kunzea serotina. Common name: Manuka. Maori name Makahikatoa. Abundant white flowers between November and May, for insects and lizards. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Pteridium esculentum. Common fern found in open areas throughout New Zealand. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Discaria toumatou. New Zealand's only endemic thorny plant. Tangle branched, extremely thorny shrub or small tree up to five metres tall. Small leathery leaves close to the thorns, which are only abundant in spring, or the shade. The flowers are tiny and white. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Coprosma propinqua. Maori and common name: Mingimingi. A large, tough shrub with interlaced foliage, 3 - 6 m tall. Laden with fruit that changes from white to dark blue. Widely distributed throughout New Zealand. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Corokia cotoneaster. Small shrub grows to 3 m tall, with interwoven zig-zag thin grey twigs bearing clusters of small leaves. Leaves white underneath with a dented or rounded tip and on a dark flattened leaf stalk. Produces yellow, star-shaped flowers in spring. Fruit orange or red. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Poa colensoi. Common names: Short tussock, blue tussock. Small hardy tussock, prefers dry rocky soils. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Common name: Scrambling pohuehue or small-leaved pohuehue. A hardy, vigorous native vine with a tangled mass of brown wiry stems with small round leaves and small cream flowers followed later by black seeds held in a fleshy cup. Can form a dense mound 2 m wide, or climb over other plants. Along with the other four native Muehlenbeckia species, it is an incredibly important host plant for insects. It is important for vegetation restoration and restoring biodiversity. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Veronica pimeleoides subs faucicola. Blue-green sprawling shrub with pairs of oval pointed leaves on reddish stems. Inhabiting dry rocky sites in Otago. Flowers white or pinkish, in spikes with up to 24 flowers. Conservations status: At risk - naturally uncommon. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Podocarpus laetus. Common names: Hall's totara, mountain totara. Hall’s or mountain tōtara is usually a smaller tree than its lowland relative, the true tōtara, with more thin, papery bark. It grows at higher altitudes and on poorer soils. Leaves yellow-green, green, or brownish-green; erect and leathery. The male tree has pollen cones, the female a rounded green seed on a red receptacle. Photo: Anna Yeoman
Scientific name: Melicytus alpinus. Maori name: Mahoe. A scantly-leafed slow growing shrub with stiff interlacing stems. Grows to a dense shrub up to 1m high and 2m wide. The bulk of the leaves are held within the canopy, an adaptation that helps decrease heat and drought stress in extreme climates. Tiny cream flowers and fleshy white fruit also within the canopy, for dispersal by lizards. Photo: Anna Yeoman
McGlone, M. S. (2001) The origin of the indigenous grasslands of southeastern South island in relation to pre-human woody ecosystems. New Zealand Journal of Ecology. 25 (1): 1-15.
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network (2013). Flora - Vascular. Retrieved from: http://nzpcn.org.nz/page.aspx?flora
T.E.R:R.A.I.N Taranaki Educational Resource: Research, Analysis and Information Network (2017). Trees & shrubs (New Zealand native) by botanical name. Retrieved from: http://www.terrain.net.nz/friends-of-te-henui-group/trees-native-botanical-names-m-to-q.html
Walker, S., Lee, W.G. and Rogers, G.M. (2002) Woody biomes of Central Otago, New Zealand: The present and past distribution and future restoration needs.