One of the best learning experiences of my life was Mr. Perpich’s 10th grade biology class at White Bear Senior High. During our unit on trees, Mr. Perpich did the unthinkable: he took us outside. We walked all around the neighborhood identifying trees, and at the end of the unit, he tested us on 25 species, using actual leaves that we had to recognize. I got them all right, and I’ve know most Minnesota tree species ever since. For my money, there’s not better way to learn biology than to actually touch and sniff a few living, respirating organisms.
On travels around the US, I’ve supplemented my tree knowledge, learning strange varieties of pines and spruces and firs and hemlocks in Michigan and Montana and Oregon.
I really like to know the names of things, but here in New Zealand, I’m back to square one. Hearing the accents, driving on the left, shopping for groceries, things are a little odd, but the forest is truly foreign. I go for a walk in the woods, and I feel like I’m on the other side of the world. They don’t have pines and spruces and oaks and maples and ash and elm here. The forests are made up of something called podocarps, which sound like a fish or an ancient philosopher to me, and beeches, which is a tree I know from English poetry and storybooks, and which is also where people throw the carcasses of dead podocarps.
To make matters worse, the trees have Maori names that just don’t stick in my head the way more familiar names do. Totora, matai, rimu, miro, kahikatea. Last night as I was half asleep, the names were repeating themselves in nursery-rhyme fashion in my head: rimu-miro-miro-rimu-totora-matai-kahikatea. Rimu-miro, miro-rimu, mirror-mirror, who am I, where are you, what’s a rimu miru mommy?
The early Europeans, like Captain Cook, were apparently as confused as I am, so they gave them names like white pine (kahikatea), red pine (rimu), black pine (matai) and brown pine (miro). Further complicating matters, Captain Cook made spruce beer out of red pine, which was really matai, to stave off scurvy.
Luckily I have the Internet. I was able to surf around and find out a few things about podocarps. It turns out they’re a family of gymnosperms (which have naked seeds, as opposed to angiosperms, which have seeds covered in fruit). They are coniferous (cone-bearing or evergreen) trees, which means they’re related to our pines and spruces and firs and cedars (which are actually in the cypress family). We don’t hear much about podocarps because they’re mostly confined to the southern and eastern hemispheres.
When you look at the branches, you can kind of tell they’re related to our evergreens. They have flat, needle-like leaves that look to me like those of the yew, a shrub used for landscaping back home, mainly on the cool north side of houses. They don’t have cones like our conifers do, but their seeds often have a fleshy, berry-like covering called an epimatium that attracts birds. Since they’re covered, you might wonder why they’re considered gymnosperms, or naked seeds. Well, you’ll have to ask someone else about that.
Speaking of birds, have I told you about the kaka, kakapo, kea, kakariki, hihi, hoiho, hakawai, matata, moa, matuku, moho, miromiro…
Below: Coming from Minnesota, I’ve always been jealous of places with big trees. Southern New Zealand had some beauties.