Bay of Plenty
Collecting the world's kauri species has led Omanawa farmer-turnedorchardist Graham Dyer to some of the Pacific's most remote spots.
Graham Dyer speaks to Sandra Simpson about his kauri collection.
The quest began in 1993 after Graham realised the world’s only Agathis collection was growing in pots in a glasshouse in the Netherlands. “Nobody else had ever put them together. They were in Holland because the early scientific work on Agathis had been done there, thanks to Holland’s colonial ties with Indonesia,” he explains.
“I didn’t think their identification was very accurate so thought I might as well have a go. As Tauranga is the natural southern boundary of kauri in New Zealand, it seemed the right place to do it.”
His father was a farm-forester at Onewhero near Pukekohe and Graham reckons he was “tainted” by the passion for trees at an early age, joining the New Zealand Tree Society at 20.
When the family moved to the Western Bay of Plenty in 1960, Graham began beautifying the dairy farm with trees, a project halted when the land went into kiwifruit in 1980.
In 2005 he and wife Mavis planted what is believed to now be the southern hemisphere’s biggest gingko nut orchard.
Although Graham had a good start with his kauri quest in New Caledonia, a place he describes as “a mine of trees”, obtaining seed generally required great patience and he quickly learned that turning up in person was the only way to get what he wanted. “Once you arrive and start talking to foresters, they understand. But for every one person who’s been cooperative, there have been 10 that weren’t.”
Each Agathis species – 21 in all – drops seeds in the wet season, and every country has a slightly different wet season.
“Seeds are viable for only three weeks, so if you go too early or too late, you’ve wasted your time.”
He recalls once being given the help of a “not young” seed collector in Papua New Guinea. “He climbed for about 45 minutes – partly because halfway up he had to get round a beehive – only to find all the cones had been shattered by sulphur-crested cockatoos before they were ready. He abseiled down in about five seconds. It was a lot of work for no result but that’s how it is, unfortunately.”
Another time, most of the seed he received from Indonesia after an unsuccessful visit germinated but then died from damping off. “It taught me not to do it all by myself,” Graham says. “After that, I sent half of any seed I got to someone else so as to spread the risk.”
Since then he’s helped build up kauri collections held by Graeme Platt in Auckland and Clive Higgie in Whanganui.
But not all trees have been hard won – Graham was puzzling about how to obtain seed for Agathis montana, which grows only at the top of a single mountain in New Caledonia, when he discovered there was a 30-year-old specimen in Kerikeri!
Graham has given away almost all his kauri now, donating a collection of the Jurassic-era trees to Sydenham Botanic Park in Tauranga and the arboretum at McLaren Falls Park.
Since 2000, he and Mavis have planted a different collection too, with each tree dedicated to a family member – now three generations of their own and their adopted Vanuatu family.
The Dyers’ ties to Vanuatu go back almost 40 years from a stint Graham did with Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA), accompanied by Mavis and 12-year-old son Gavin.
Gavin had quickly made friends with a local lad, Malcolm, who later lived with the Dyers for three years while attending secondary school. Malcolm has since come back every year to prune kiwifruit, joined by other men from South Santo Island, the largest in the archipelago.
As a mark of gratitude from this community, the Dyers have been given a lifetime lease on a plot of custom land on South Santo.
“Some people see the world playing golf or bridge, I’ve seen it collecting seed,” Graham says. “These days I let Mavis sort the holidays as I reckon it’s her turn to choose – though I do try and visit a botanic garden wherever we end up.”
Female cone of kauri ( Agathis australis).
Mavis and Graham Dyer.